Sunday, November 05, 2006

Leftist Ortega near comeback in Nicaragua election

Sun Nov 5, 2006 7:47 PM ET

By Kieran Murray

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Nicaraguans voted in huge numbers for a new president on Sunday with former Marxist guerrilla Daniel Ortega close to returning to power despite opposition from the United States, his old Cold War enemy.

Sixteen years after he was thrown out of office by voters tired of a vicious civil war with U.S.-backed Contra rebels, the mustachioed Sandinista leader was ahead of conservative rivals in opinion polls in his third comeback attempt.

If he fails to win in the first round, however, Ortega could easily lose a runoff as conservative voters would likely rally behind his rival.

At polling stations from mist-covered mountains in the North to bug-infested indigenous villages of the Caribbean coast, people lined up from before dawn to vote. Observers said turnout was above 70 percent with no major problems reported.

Polling stations closed at 6 p.m. (midnight GMT), although anyone still in line was allowed to vote. Preliminary results were expected late on Sunday night and, with the country deeply divided, some feared a long wait might spark protests.

Although Ortega has toned down his leftist rhetoric, Washington worries he will team up with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro in the anti-U.S. bloc of Latin American leaders if he wins.

U.S. officials have warned that U.S. aid and investment will drop under Ortega and have backed his main challenger at the polls -- wealthy former banker Eduardo Montealegre.

Still, many Nicaraguans are frustrated by the failure of often corrupt pro-market governments to fight poverty and about a third support the 60-year-old Ortega, who first seized power in a 1979 revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza.

"He is the only one who looks out for the poor. All the others are just for the rich," said William Medina, a lawyer standing in line to vote at a Managua polling station.

On the other side of a bitter divide, conservatives remember the bloodshed, rations, hyperinflation and hard-line policies under Sandinista leaders whose alliance with the Soviet Union and Cuba helped turn the Central American nation into a Cold War battleground.

"One day they took away my son, and I never saw him again," said 66-year-old Maria Elena Sanchez, crying as she recalled how her 17-year-old son was drafted by the army from their home in the central town of Masaya to join the war.

BEAUTY AND POVERTY

A beautiful land of tropical rain forests, volcanoes and lakes, Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti

It was wrecked by the war that claimed 30,000 lives and by a U.S. embargo against the Sandinistas. Although the economy has stabilized under three straight conservative presidents, 8 of 10 Nicaraguans still live on $2 a day or less.

Ortega needs 40 percent of the vote, or 35 percent and a 5-point lead, to win outright on Sunday. Opinion polls put him close to it but he will struggle to win a runoff if he falls short in the first round.

Rightists, split between Montealegre and rival conservative candidate Jose Rizo, are expected to unite to defeat Ortega if there is a second round. Many fear nothing more than a return to the chaos of the 1980s.

"All I learned from that time is to be frightened of the Sandinistas and to hate them," said Rolando Lopez, 44, in the northern mountain town of Esteli, which was a Sandinista stronghold in the revolution but saw fierce fighting in the 1980s. He said he spent years in hiding to escape the draft.

Conservative candidate Montealegre is a fan of late U.S. President Ronald Reagan who gave full backing to the Contras, saying the Sandinistas were a threat to the United States.

A coffee exporter with a population of 5.1 million people, Nicaragua is the latest stage for a fight between the United States and Venezuela's Chavez for regional influence.

Opponents complain Chavez effectively bought votes for Ortega by sending cheap Venezuelan fertilizer and fuel to Sandinista-affiliated groups.

Sandinistas counter that Washington has scared voters away from Ortega and is unfairly backing Montealegre.

Ortega says he has changed and preaches reconciliation. He won the support of former Contra leaders and a Spanish-language version of the John Lennon song "Give Peace a Chance" blasted out at campaign rallies where he promised to help the poor.

(Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez)

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