MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Nicaraguan voters will find themselves at an ideological crossroads today when they vote in a high-stakes presidential election closely contested by the country’s former Marxist revolutionary leader and a Harvard-educated banker who preaches free trade.
With former President Daniel Ortega leading in the polls, the election’s subplot has been the alleged meddling by U.S. officials in promoting their preferred candidate, Eduardo Montealegre. Venezuela has also weighed in, openly backing Ortega as a potential ally.
About 3 million Nicaraguans are eligible to vote. To avoid a second-round runoff, the winner must secure at least 40 percent of the vote in the five-candidate field. The leading vote getter can also win with just 35 percent if he bests his second-place rival by at least five percentage points.
Election officials say they probably will not announce final results until Monday.
Ortega’s surprising political rebirth after three electoral defeats has caused U.S. officials to threaten a cut in foreign aid. But a second threat has hit closer to home for many Nicaraguans: the possible loss of remittances.
The issue continued to stir the campaign’s final days when U.S. lawmakers brought attention to a letter that U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., sent Tuesday to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff asking him to make contingency plans to block remittances.
Most analysts say it is unlikely that the United States would block the $800 million that Nicaraguans send home. But Rafael Carcamo, a Los Angeles physician who returned to Nicaragua last week to vote, said that fear helped persuade his elderly relatives to reject Ortega.
“If those remittances would disappear, how would people survive?” wondered Carcamo, who supports Montealegre, Ortega’s main challenger.