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Polls Close in Nicaragua

The polls have closed in much of Nicaragua where voters on Sunday lined up to choose their next president. The polls were allowed to remain open in places where people were still waiting to cast their votes after the official closing hours. In a race too close to call, according to polls, former President Daniel Ortega of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front is making a comeback bid against right-of-center candidate Enrique Bolanos of the Liberal Party.

The voting is now over and the counting has begun. The process was peaceful and orderly and under the scrutiny of some 250 international observers. But the real challenge comes with the counting and tabulation of votes, which may take more than 24 hours to complete.

Any irregularities are to be addressed by the Supreme Electoral Council, but it is composed of four members who support Mr. Bolanos and three who support Mr. Ortega. The president of the Council, Roberto Rivas, is the only non-partisan member. If the vote count is very close, those aligned with the losing side could protest.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who is here with a team of international observers, says an independent quick count should help resolve such disputes. He says the results of that count are expected long before the official count is completed and that, since it will be made available to all council members, it is likely to be made public soon. "It is incredible to imagine that all seven of these people would keep it secret if the results benefit their party," said Mr. Carter.

This election was one of the most fiercely contested in Nicaragua´s history. Candidate Ortega is remembered by many people for his previous rule, from 1979-1990, when the Sandinistas confiscated private property and jailed those who dared to dissent.

Mr. Bolanos campaigned on the notion that a return to power by Daniel Ortega would bring renewed friction with the United States. He even suggested that Mr. Ortega might align his government with terrorists who seek to attack the United States.

But many younger voters do not remember the Sandinista years and have responded to Mr. Ortega´s new image, summarized by his campaign promises for jobs, better education and social harmony. He also says he is a changed man and would no longer seize private property or suppress dissent. Whether he will have the chance to prove that depends on the vote count being conducted now.