Ortega keeps a grip on the Sandinistas

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WITH his moustache and clenched fist, he was - in his prime - a figure almost on the scale of Che Guevara in the pantheon of international left-wing heroes.

At 53, Daniel Ortega is an older, less inspiring figure. But the former hero of the Sandinista revolution chalked up a victory on a small scale yesterday after being re-elected as leader of Nicaragua's (now opposition) Sandinista Front.

Mr Ortega headed a Sandinista government from 1979 to 1990 after overthrowing the despised Somoza dictatorship, but it was embattled from the start by conflict with the United States and with the right-wing American-backed Contra guerrilla army.

After being forced to the bargaining table, he then lost the country's first post-civil war presidential election to his out-and-out capitalist opponent Violeta Chamorro. Shorn of power, Mr Ortega largely faded from the international scene. But he managed to retain his leadership of the Sandinistas, now flung uncomfortably into the role of a democratic left- wing opposition.

That position, too, came under threat last March, when his 30-year-old stepdaughter went public with accusations that the revolutionary leader had sexually abused her since she was 11 years old. The party hierarchy closed ranks around Mr Ortega over the scandal, although the furore sharpened an incipient power struggle between reformists and hardliners.

Mr Ortega seemed to recognise the ideological confusion in his now dispirited movement in his victory speech, matching old-style revolutionary rhetoric with a cautious promise to abide by democratic norms. "We are committed to revolution, committed to the struggle. Today's challenge is to reform the government through the electoral process," he said.

And two of the new members of the 15-strong central committee were members of the once-despised business class.

Not everyone was convinced that these incremental changes would propel Mr Ortega back into the limelight and power. Among the guests at the congress was Eden Pastora, once famous as the Sandinista "Commander Zero"who seized Nicaragua's national palace in 1978 but who later joined the rebel uprising against Ortega's Sandinista government in the Eighties.

"If they move, they sink, and if they don't move, they sink," Mr Pastora told journalists. "If they re-elect Daniel Ortega, it is not a democracy, and if they don't, they have no leader."