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Nicaraguan Presidential Election Expected to Be Close - 2001-11-03

In the Central American nation of Nicaragua, former President Daniel Ortega, the one-time leftist guerrilla whose government clashed with the United States more than a decade ago, is hoping to return to power in an election Sunday. Public opinion polls indicate a close race and there are fears of violent protests once the results are known.

Heavily armed police and army troops are already in evidence on many streets in Managua. All is quiet now. The campaigning officially ended Wednesday and no more will be heard from the candidates until after the voting is over on Sunday. But a clash between Ortega supporters and those of his main rival, Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolanos, earlier this week left one person dead and 20 injured.

With the two men locked in a statistical dead heat according to polls, observers fear a bitter possibly violent reaction from whichever side comes out the loser.

Violeta Granera de Sandino is director of the non-partisan Citizens' Initiative for Peace. In a VOA interview, she says part of the problem is the division within the official body that rules on the final vote count.

She says Nicaragua is in a complicated position because the Electoral Council is not an independent body, but one composed of representatives from each party. Ms. Granera de Sandino says this could lead to problems if one candidate wins by a small margin after the council has thrown out votes for the other candidate because of procedural errors.

The election is particularly bitter because Mr. Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front are remembered by many Nicaraguans for their anti-democratic, leftist policies. From 1979 to 1990, the Sandinistas confiscated properties, arrested people who expressed opposition and promoted strong ties with the former Soviet Union and communist Cuba. A war with U.S.-backed rebels, known as contras, further weakened the Nicaraguan economy and forced the Sandinistas to accept democratic elections under international supervision in February of 1990. That resulted in the decisive defeat of Mr. Ortega by newspaper publisher Violeta Chamorro.

In this election, Mr. Ortega is presenting a new, softer image of himself and his party, with banners proclaiming "love is stronger than hate." But Mr. Bolanos derides that rhetoric, accusing the Sandinista leader of hypocrisy.

Mr. Bolanos, who was among those who had property confiscated by the Sandinistas, has warned voters that an Ortega return could bring disaster for the country, including renewed friction with the United States. But corruption charges against the current government, in which Mr. Bolanos served, has undermined his message, leaving the electorate deeply divided.