Nicaragua Balloting Said to Go Smoothly

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 6, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Nov. 5 -- Daniel Ortega, the former Marxist revolutionary who last came to power at the head of a guerrilla force in 1979, remained locked in a close race to regain the presidency tonight as election officials predicted it would take them until early Monday to finish tallying the results.

Amid fears of ballot-rigging and allegations of meddling by U.S. officials, more than 17,000 Nicaraguan and foreign observers -- including a team of monitors led by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter -- fanned out across the lush countryside to ensure the fairness of the vote.

Apart from concerns about delayed openings and interminable waits under a scorching sun at many precincts, the consensus among observers was that turnout among Nicaragua's more than 3 million registered voters was high and that balloting proceeded smoothly.

"The climate has been calm, and there is no reason to think this will change," Gustavo Fernández, chief of the 200-member Organization of American States observer mission, announced at a news conference in Managua.

At a polling center in a shantytown by the city's vast trash dump, many voters said they had cast their ballots for Ortega in hopes that he would lift Nicaragua out of its persistent poverty.

"I work from dawn to dusk, but most days all I can feed my children is coffee and bread," said José Guido, 36, who makes his living picking through the mountains of putrid refuse at the dump in search of recyclables.

Guido then ticked off a list of social programs that Ortega had introduced as head of the Soviet-backed government of the Sandinista National Liberation Front from 1979 to 1990, and concluded: "Daniel is the only one who cares about us. I'm so hopeful that he will win and take us out of this misery."

But many Nicaraguans long ago lost their taste for Ortega, disillusioned by his government's human rights abuses, confiscation of property and bloody war against insurgents known as the contras, who were trained and funded by the United States in a failed effort to topple him.

Although Ortega subsequently moderated his image by embracing Catholicism and pronouncing himself a supporter of a market economy, the mustachioed leader has twice failed to win back the presidency since voters swept him from office in 1990.

This time, however, Ortega's chances are considered high because of a splintered opposition and new rules his Sandinista party helped engineer that permit a candidate to win a first-round vote with as little as 35 percent of the ballots and a five-point lead.

Ortega has consistently led opinion polls with as much as 33 percent, well ahead of his strongest competitor, Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance.

Montealegre, 51, a former banker and minister in recent governments of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), broke with his old party after its boss, former president Arnoldo Alemán, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on corruption charges.

Also running are José Rizo, 62, of the PLC; Edmundo Jarquín, 60, of the dissident Sandinista Renovation Movement; and, in last place, Eden Pastora, a former Sandinista commander.

If Ortega fails to win the first round, few analysts believe that he could win the runoff, which would be held in mid-December.

U.S. officials, alarmed by the prospect that Ortega could achieve a first-round victory, issued a stream of warnings about possible economic consequences for Nicaragua.

Ascención Velasquez, 42, a bricklayer who cast his vote for Rizo in a working-class neighborhood of Managua, said he had taken those statements to heart.

"If Ortega wins, it's going to be back to the disaster of the 1980s, embargo by the United States, shortages of everything, no jobs," he said.

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