November 7, 2006 in Nation/World

Sandinista leader likely to return to power

Nancy San Martin McClatchy

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – In a stunning comeback, former Marxist revolutionary Daniel Ortega seemed certain Monday to have won Nicaragua’s presidency 16 years after contra rebels backed by the Reagan administration helped push him out of power.

With 62 percent of Sunday’s ballots officially counted, the still-leftist Ortega had 38.6 percent, far more than enough to avoid a runoff against Eduardo Montealegre, in second with 30.9 percent. Two independent electoral watchdog groups gave Ortega the win, though a final tally is expected today.

Ortega’s victory would signal a boost for the left in Latin America, reversing recent setbacks in the presidential elections in Mexico and Peru and Venezuela’s failure to secure a seat in the U.N. Security Council. He has close ties to Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who helped his campaign with discounted shipments of oil and fertilizer.

“This is good for the people of Nicaragua and for the integration of Latin America,” Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told the Associated Press in Havana.

Supporters of Ortega, 60, spilled onto the streets in the evening, honking car horns, waving the red and black flags of his Sandinista party, setting off fireworks and blasting the campaign’s theme song, “Give Peace a Chance.”

“The important thing is that the elections were peaceful, transparent and had complete civic participation,” said Rene Nunez, a high-ranking Sandinista member of the National Assembly.

An Ortega government will mean a move toward “an end to hunger, more employment, free education and social programs,” Nunez said, adding that it also would maintain “friendly and respectful relations with all the countries of the world.”

The balloting was deemed clean and fair by some 17,000 national and international observers, and only U.S. Embassy officials here raised concerns about reported “anomalies” in some voting centers.

In Washington, the Bush administration reacted cautiously but hinted that if Ortega’s victory was certified and clean, Washington would give him the benefit of the doubt.

U.S. officials had previously warned of possible restrictions on U.S. aid and other benefits for Nicaragua if Ortega won.

“The Nicaraguan electorate is responsible for choosing its leaders,” said Eric Watnik, a spokesman for the State Department’s Western Hemisphere department. “We will work with those leaders based on their commitment to and actions in support of Nicaragua’s democratic future.”

The State Department also released a statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, made before Sunday’s election, in which she said Washington would wait to “see what the policies of the next Nicaraguan government will be” before deciding on future relations.

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