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Nicaragua Presidential Election Could Return Sandinista Chief Ortega to Power


Former leftist Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega could return to power if he wins Sunday's presidential election. The opposition is divided and Ortega appears to hold a strong enough lead to give him a first round victory. The prospect of the Sandinista leader's return to power has set off alarms in Washington.

To the tune of John Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance", Daniel Ortega may be headed for victory Sunday -- bringing the former leftist leader back to power after 16 years -- and three unsuccessful attempts at winning the presidency.

His chances are good because he faces a divided opposition and his Sandinista party is effective in turning out the vote, says Michael Shifter of the Inter American Dialogue.

"He's got a machine, he's got the Sandinista party apparatus that operates quite well, and operates throughout the country. There's a sense of loyalty that people have, there's a sense that if he wins they are going to get some benefits. And I also think he has a message of greater social justice that resonates in a place like Nicaragua that has had very difficult economic times," said Shifter.

The Sandinistas came to power in 1979 after a revolt that overthrew a right-wing dictatorship. Enjoying popular support at first, Ortega presided over the Marxist government during the 1980s, and drew support from Cuba and the former Soviet Union.

Nicaragua became a Cold War battlefield as the United States sponsored rebels -- known as contras -- to overthrow the Sandinistas. The conflict ended when Ortega agreed to free elections, and then lost the 1990 presidential contest to conservative Violeta Chamorro.

The prospect of Ortega's return to power has alarmed some, including Roger Noriega who served as the State Department's point-man for Latin America in the first term of the Bush administration. Now with the American Enterprise Institute, Noriega predicts disaster if Ortega is elected president.

"I really don't see anything positive coming from his victory,” he says. “I think he'll drive away capital, I think he'll have to use strong arm tactics to try to run the country which I think will polarize Nicaragua even further. It will be very, very bad news for the Nicaraguan people and Central America in general."

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez recently warned that Nicaragua's free trade agreement with the United States might be jeopardized by the victory of what he called a "strongman". And some Republican Congressmen have called for blocking remittances to Nicaragua if the Sandinista leader wins.

Michael Shifter believes these calls are counterproductive. "I think sometimes the overreaction with Nicaragua is not very productive for the United States and I think contrasts sharply with the way the U.S. has behaved towards other elections in Latin America which I think has been admirable, restrained, low-key."

But others believe an Ortega victory will have consequences. Roger Noriega says, "I really think he doesn't represent any sort of substantial security threat but it's not unimportant the impact he'll have on Central America."

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday whoever is elected president in Nicaragua should be up to the Nicaraguan people. "We're not trying to shade opinion or to try to take a position. This is a democratic election."

Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is hoping for a first round victory. He needs to receive just 35 percent of the vote Sunday and be five points ahead of his nearest rival to win the presidency.

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