- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

All of the progress that Nicaragua has made toward a stable, democratic government could be subverted in November if Daniel Ortega is elected president. In the 1980s, the Sandinista dictator came to power with Soviet backing; today, the Marxist’s support is provided by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

A recent poll conducted by the Universidad Centroamericano showed Mr. Ortega leading all challengers with more than 37 percent of the vote. The two center-right candidates, Jose Rizo of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), trailed Mr. Ortega substantially, with 20 percent and 17 percent, respectively. If these numbers prove accurate on election day, the Sandinista would win in the first round. The election would head to a second round only if the leading candidate fails either to win 40 percent of the vote or to win 35 percent of the vote with a margin of victory greater than 5 percent — a lowered threshold for first-round victories that was introduced during the leadership of corrupt, and now incarcerated, former President Arnoldo Aleman.

The division between Mr. Montealegre and Mr. Rizo splits the center-right vote and may have opened the door for Mr. Ortega to return to power 16 years and three failed presidential bids after he last held the office, but only if the former Sandinista dictator can do so in the first round. Mr. Montealegre told editors and reporters at The Washington Times in June that he had made efforts to unite opposition to Mr. Ortega, but had been rebuffed by the Aleman-backed PLC. If the election heads to a second round, opposition to the Sandinistas will come together, and Mr. Ortega will lose.

In addition to its unsettling political implications, the return of Mr. Ortega would turn Nicaragua’s economic policies in the wrong direction. “The woes of this country are the fault of savage capitalism,” the Sandinista boss claimed. He would pull the country out of CAFTA and “end savage capitalism when we win.” Widespread poverty, without question, is a problem that every Nicaraguan president has needed to address: Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in South America in terms of per-capita income and per-capita GDP. This is all the more reason for Nicaragua to continue its economic integration. Foreign investments and aid account for 35 percent of Nicaragua’s budget and would be jeopardized by Mr. Ortega’s likely policy of nationalization.

Poverty also makes Nicaraguan voters more easily influenced by Mr. Chavez. The Venezuelan autocrat has openly supported Mr. Ortega and has provided subsidized oil and fertilizer to Ortega-friendly villages. Unlike Peru’s Alan Garcia, who was able to win the presidential election in part because of his ability to capitalize on popular displeasure with Mr. Chavez’s support for his opponent, neither Mr. Montealegre nor Mr. Rizo have been able to turn Mr. Ortega’s Venezuelan backer into an election issue against him as successfully.

Should Mr. Ortega win, he will align Nicaragua politically, as well as economically, with Venezuela and Mr. Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution, creating setbacks for U.S. policy in Central America and for Nicaragua itself.

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