Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Ortega elected president in Nicaragua

By TRACI CARL, Associated Press Writer

Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist revolutionary who fought off a U.S.-backed insurgency in the 1980s, won back the Nicaraguan presidency Tuesday and promised to work to eliminate poverty and reassure investors.

After near-complete results showed Ortega with a 9-percentage point lead, chief rival Eduardo Montealegre conceded defeat.

Ortega said he would fight poverty, encourage investment in Nicaragua and "create a new political culture" that would "set aside our differences and put the Nicaraguan people, the poor first."

Ortega's supporters filled the streets, waving black-and-red party flags and singing Ortega's peace-and-reconciliation campaign song, set to the tune of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."

The Harvard-educated Montealegre appeared at a rally with Ortega and congratulated him, saying "Nicaragua needs to move forward. The people have suffered enough." Montealegre said that he would spend the next five years ensuring that Ortega stayed true to his pledges to promote private business, allow a free press and battle widespread poverty.

With 91 percent of the votes tallied, Ortega had 38 percent of the votes from Sunday's election compared to 29 percent for Montealegre. Under Nicaraguan law, the winner of Sunday's election must have 35 percent of the vote and a 5 percentage-point lead to avoid a runoff.

The former Marxist revolutionary spent most of the 1980s fighting a U.S.-backed Contra insurgency. He lost the presidency in the 1990 election, ending Sandinista rule and years of civil war. He's spent the past 16 years trying to get his old job back.

The United States, which had warned against an Ortega win, has declined to comment on the results.

But former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who served as an election observer, said Tuesday in Managua that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "assured me that no matter who was elected, the U.S. will respond positively and favorably." Rice's office confirmed that the two talked by phone, but refused to give details.

The Cold War icon's victory adds Nicaragua to a growing number of Latin American nations with leftists at the helm, led by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has tried to help Ortega by shipping discounted oil to the poor, energy-starved nation.

Chavez called to congratulate Ortega Tuesday night, praising what he called the rising current of sentiment against U.S. influence.

"We're happy here. We're very proud of you," Chavez said during a televised speech as he called Ortega by cellular phone, adding the two countries would be "uniting as never before" to construct a socialist future.

Ortega could be heard replying with praise for Chavez's so-called "Bolivarian Revolution."

Chavez added that he shortly hoped to see Ortega and that Cuba's Fidel Castro was also pleased by his victory.

Ortega, who served as president from 1985-90, toned down his once-fiery rhetoric during the campaign, promising to support a regional free trade agreement with the U.S. and maintain good relations with Washington.

He says he has changed profoundly since he befriended Soviet leaders, expropriated land and fought Contra rebels in a war that left 30,000 dead and the economy in shambles.

Before he lost the presidency to Violeta Chamorro in 1990, Ortega lowered illiteracy rates from 60 percent to 12 percent and built a free health care system.

He also confiscated many homes, including the estate of a former Contra spokesman, Jaime Morales, who is now his vice president. He reconciled with Morales recently by paying him for the sprawling complex.

Ortega used congressional immunity to dodge rape allegations filed by a stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez. He has denied the charges, but Narvaez continues to push her case publicly.

The father of nine children — seven with his wife and campaign manager, Rosario Murillo — Ortega is known to enjoy ranchera music. But his favorite song is Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

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