Nicaraguan Election Draws High Turnout
Close Race Raises Concern in Washington
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Nov. 4 -- Daniel Ortega, who marched onto the political
scene here 22 years ago as a machine-gun-toting Marxist revolutionary,
appeared tonight to be faltering in his bid to regain the presidency.
Late tonight, several analysts said a high voter turnout seemed to be
favoring Ortega's opponent, Enrique Bolanos, a conservative businessman
openly supported by
the Bush administration. Bolanos' greatest challenge has been to distance himself from the allegations of corruption swirling around outgoing President Arnoldo
Aleman. Bolanos, 73, served as Aleman's vice-president and in recent days his campaign has gained momentum as he publicly sought to sever ties with Aleman.
Ortega, a self-proclaimed "changed man," presided over the Soviet-backed
Sandinista government from 1979 to 1990. He lost two previous bids to recapture
presidency in the 1990s. Today's vote had drawn international attention because polls had shown Ortega and Bolanos in a virtual tie.
The polls were scheduled to close at 6 p.m. but remained open long after
that to accommodate long lines of people on a day of high turnout. No official
due until early Monday.
Many voters interviewed after they cast their ballots said they had not voted in favor of a candidate, but rather against the one they despised the most.
Albertina Iglesias, a housekeeper, said she voted for Bolanos only because
she did not want Ortega to be president. "My brother called me from New
said, 'Vote against Ortega.' " She said her brother had to flee the country when Ortega was president to avoid the military draft.
In those times, Iglesias said, thousands of youths needlessly died, and there was too much bloodshed. "We can't go back to those days."
Ortega's candidacy has brought the harsh spotlight of international
attention back to Nicaragua, a poor Central American nation of 5 million
people where the United
States backed rebels fighting Ortega's Marxist regime. The Bush administration has argued forcefully against an Ortega victory and hinted that U.S. economic aid to
Nicaragua could dry up if he won.
Ortega has been able to tap into popular anger about Nicaragua's dire
economic problems, joblessness and official corruption. Analysts here say
Ortega has made
many people forget the corruption and brutality of his government -- he imprisoned many, confiscated private property and censored the press. A U.S. blockade of
the country in the 1980s, as well as Ortega's economic policies, led to food rationing and sky-high inflation.
While Bolanos is generally considered honest, he has had to work hard
to convince voters he will be independent from Aleman, who is expected
to continue as a
strong force in their Liberal Party. Aleman is widely believed to have siphoned off taxpayer money to enrich himself and his cronies.
"The general assessment by international organizations is that [Aleman's]
is one of the most corrupt administrations in the hemisphere," former president
said in an interview here today. Carter is leading a team of electoral observers to this closely watched race.
Nicaragua had largely dropped from U.S. consciousness since the end
of the Cold War. In the meantime vast numbers of Nicaraguans have sunk
poverty, as the country has been pummeled by hurricanes, droughts, official mismanagement and a global drop in coffee prices, one of the country's most important
sources of income.
Ortega asserts that his Marxist ideology is now tempered by Christianity
and the wisdom of hindsight. Even so, his potential to win has turned Nicaragua
political tinderbox that is worrying Washington.
State Department officials say they distrust Ortega and warn that an
Ortega victory would be viewed with deep suspicion in light of the Sandinista's
friendly ties with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Warnings from Washington about Ortega's "terrorist links" have intensified since the
Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Antonio Lacayo, Ortega's vice presidential candidate, said tonight that
the U.S. interference in the race was "lamentable." Nonetheless, he said,
Ortega is prepared to
be a close partner with the United States.
Many polling stations opened two or more hours late and the painfully
slow processing of each vote forced people to stand in line for as long
as seven hours in the
tropical sun. In the remote far eastern part of the country, electoral observers took boats and helicopters to witness the voting and said results from these areas could
take two days to reach Managua.