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Ortega leads in race for Nicaragua's presidency

Leftist Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega had a strong lead over four other candidates in an election that could return him to power after 16 years.

india Updated: Nov 06, 2006 13:48 IST

Leftist Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega had a strong lead over four other candidates in an election that could return him to power 16 years after a US-backed rebellion helped force him from office, according to preliminary results released early on Monday.

With a little over 7 per cent of polling stations counted, Ortega has 41 percent to 33 per cent for Harvard-educated Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, a party that broke from the ruling Constitutionalist Liberal Party after former President Arnoldo Aleman was convicted of corruption.

Trailing behind were Sandinista dissident Edmundo Jarquin, ruling party candidate Jose Rizo and former Contra rebel Eden Pastora.

Ortega needs 35 per cent of the vote and an advantage of 5 percentage points over his closest rival to avoid a runoff in December.

Sunday's election in the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere has become a tug-of-war issue between rivals Venezuela and the United States.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a US foe, has openly favored his "brother" Ortega, while Washington remains wary of the balding 60-year-old, once an iconic figure of the Latin American left and ally of the Soviet Union.

The US Embassy issued a statement late on Sunday saying it was too soon to "make an overall judgment on the fairness and transparency of the process,"

"We are receiving reports of some anomalies in the electoral process, including the late opening of (polling place,) the slowness of the voting process, and the premature closing of some" polling places, the statement read.

Before reading the early results, Roberto Rivas, president of the Supreme Electoral Council, blasted the US statement, saying: "We have promised the Nicaraguan people transparent elections, and that's what we've done. I think there were enough observers to witness that."

Observers said voting overall was peaceful, although many polling stations opened late, leaving long lines of people waiting to cast their ballots. After the polls closed, groups of angry voters pounded on shuttered doors, screaming at officials inside to let them vote.

The race was Ortega's fifth consecutive presidential campaign. He won a 1984 election boycotted by Sandinista opponents, then lost in 1990 to Violeta Chamorro, ending Sandinista rule and the Contra war.

His next two presidential attempts, in 1996 and 2001, were also failures.

Earlier, Ortega cast his vote amid a throng of cameramen, saying he was confident there wouldn't be a runoff.

"Nicaragua wins today," he said before climbing into his Mercedes sport utility vehicle and driving away with his wife. Polls have shown Ortega would have trouble winning a December runoff.

While he has a loyal base of support, many voters still have bitter memories of Sandinista rule, which left the country in an economic shambles and which saw 30,000 killed in a war against U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

Ortega has repeatedly said he has changed. In fact, his vice presidential candidate was once one of his biggest enemies: Jaime Morales, who served as the spokesman for the Contras.

As Sandinista leader, Ortega seized Morales' six-bedroom estate, but they reconciled after Ortega offered to pay Morales for his former home -- now Ortega's campaign headquarters.

Marvin Lopez, a 46-year-old doctor waiting in a long line at the same polling station where Ortega voted, said he feared an Ortega win would bring back uncontrollable inflation and conflict.

"I don't want to return to a dictatorship, the misery, the abuse of families' rights," he said.

Waiting at the end of the line was 26-year-old student Gema Amaya Larios, who said she woke up at dawn to cast her vote for Ortega.

"He's the only one who will give the people what they need," she said.

"Everyone else just cares about their own interests." If Ortega wins, she predicted that his presidency would be different from his 1985-1990 term.

"There was an embargo, a war," she said. "Besides, we all learn from our mistakes."

First Published: Nov 06, 2006 13:48 IST