Old U.S. Adversary Poised for Comeback

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 5, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Nov. 4 -- As Daniel Ortega makes his fourth attempt to win back Nicaragua's presidency in elections Sunday, citizens across this war-battered nation are grappling with the very real possibility that the former Marxist revolutionary could finally succeed.

That prospect has sent shudders through Washington, where Ortega is remembered, and reviled, as the bane of the Reagan administration.

Here in Nicaragua, however, the vote is being viewed less as a referendum on Ortega's 11-year rule after his guerrilla forces seized power in 1979 than as a chance to end a more recent era of collusion between his Sandinista National Liberation Front and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party, which holds the most seats in the National Assembly.

Maverick candidates from both camps have pronounced themselves disgusted by the unbridled corruption that has flourished under "el pacto," or the pact, as the power-sharing arrangement is known, and they have formed popular breakaway parties that vow to return the focus to Nicaragua's impoverished multitudes.

Yet this very splintering of his opposition, combined with a rules change devised under the pact that allows a candidate to win a first-round vote with as little as 35 percent of the ballots and a five-point lead, offers Ortega, 60, his best chance at a comeback since voters swept him from the presidency in 1990.

Although the immense affection Ortega earned by toppling brutal dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 was severely eroded by his government's human rights abuses, confiscation of property and bloody war against U.S.-backed contra insurgents, Ortega still leads public opinion polls in the five-way race with as much as 33 percent -- putting him within striking distance of a first-round victory.

Now Nicaraguans face a dilemma.

"Everyone is asking themselves: 'Should I vote for the candidate I really want, or should I vote for the guy who I think can beat Ortega?" observed Carlos Chamorro, a political analyst and son of the woman who replaced Ortega in 1990, Violeta Chamorro.

Ortega's opponents have weighed in over the past week with a frenzy of ads promoting themselves as the most viable alternative.

José Rizo, 62, candidate of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party, blanketed the airwaves with commercials claiming that the massive turnout at his closing campaign rally in a Managua square last Sunday proved he was the safest bet.

Eduardo Montealegre, 51, a former foreign and finance minister now representing the breakaway Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, countered with spots touting opinion polls that put him in second place.

"Think of your family and of Nicaragua. Don't waste your vote on candidates who can't defeat Ortega," Montealegre, who is favored by the Bush administration, urged in a final televised message to voters Wednesday.

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