Saturday, November 4, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — While revamping his public image and embracing former enemies, Nicaraguan presidential hopeful Daniel Ortega added the most unlikely of allies to his campaign — God.

The one-time ardent Marxist leader who dominated the 1980s has recast himself as a devout Catholic and regular churchgoer.

Throughout the campaign that culminates with today’s presidential election, the former president has praised God in speeches and asked Him to help Nicaragua — the second-poorest country in the hemisphere — rise up from the depths of poverty and despair.

“Sixteen years have passed since the war ended,” said Mr. Ortega in one of his final appearances, referring to the drawn out and bloody civil war between the Sandinistas and the U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

“I ask God to give us a chance to govern in peace together, without political differences, everyone together so that we can pull Nicaragua out of poverty.”

To critics, Mr. Ortega is so intent on winning today’s election after losing two previous presidential bids, he’s shown a willingness to do and say whatever it takes to succeed.

But others accept Mr. Ortega’s expressions as genuine, including many in Nicaragua’s Catholic Church, which Mr. Ortega often accused of collaborating with the CIA during the Contra war of the 1980s.

Mr. Ortega scored points with devout Catholics by backing Nicaragua’s recent passage of a strict law against abortion.

Many view his talk of God as part of an image makeover that is carefully cultivated with opportunist rhetoric and window dressing by a power-hungry former head of state eager for a comeback.

“He’s just using the word of God to get people to think he’s really changed,” said Maynor Mendoza, a 23-year-old university student.

Genuine or not, it’s working. Mr. Ortega led all candidates heading into today’s election and was projected by some to win the election outright in the first round.

Nicaraguan electoral law states that a candidate must garner 35 percent of the vote and win by five percentage points over the next leading candidate to avoid going to a second-round runoff.

Some polls showed Mr. Ortega just a hair shy of 35 percent. Others have had him as a lock with nearly 40 percent.

Meanwhile, the latest incarnation of Mr. Ortega preaches “Unity for a triumphant Nicaragua” as his campaign slogan and has embraced a one-time rival as his running mate: former Contra political official Jaime Morales.

He also has called for reconciliation among the bitterly divided political parties, casting the appeal in religious terms.

“Thank God, the supreme creator, whose message always was for Nicaraguans to love one another,” said Mr. Ortega during a campaign stop in a Managua slum.

He also recast the physical look of his campaign this go around, using pastel pink in posters as opposed to the traditional black and red of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

Some elements of the old Mr. Ortega remain the same, though. He still decries the 16 years of democratic rule since he voluntarily gave up power as having reduced Nicaraguans to “beggars.”

“We can’t be sure if he’s really changed. I guess we’ll just have to figure it out for ourselves,” said the Rev. Bismarck Conde, head of the Cathedral of Managua.

“Only God knows if he really has.”

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