Nicaragua braces itself for return of the Sandinistas

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Nicaraguans waited in long lines Sunday to vote in an election that will decide whether Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega returns to power 16 years after the end of his Soviet-allied rule and a US-backed war to topple him.

The vote has become a tug-of-war between rivals Venezuela and the United States. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has said that aid and trade "will be endangered" if "anti-democratic forces prevail," while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a US foe, has openly favored his "brother" Ortega.

While some polls opened late, few major problems were reported. Pablo Ayon, head of the independent Nicaraguan Civic Group for Ethics and Transparency, said participation was "high, orderly and peaceful."

Ortega faces four opponents: Harvard-educated Eduardo Montealegre, Sandinista dissident Edmundo Jarquin, ruling party candidate Jose Rizo and former Contra rebel Eden Pastora. Most polls show that his closest rival is Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, a party that broke from the Constitutionalist Liberal Party of former President Arnoldo Aleman, who was convicted of corruption following his 1997-2002 term.

The race was Ortega's fifth consecutive presidential campaign. He won a 1984 election boycotted by Sandinista foes, then lost in 1990 to Violeta Chamorro, ending Sandinista rule and the Contra war. His next two presidential attempts, in 1996 and 2001, were also failures.

But Ortega could win in the first round with just 35 percent of the vote if he leads his closest opponent by five percentage points.

Recent polls showed Ortega with a comfortable lead over Montealegre, but just short of the votes needed to avoid a second round.

Ortega cast his vote amid a throng of cameramen, saying he was confident there wouldn't be a runoff.

"Nicaragua wins today," he said before climbing into his Mercedes Benz sport utility vehicle and driving away with his wife.

Results will begin to trickle in late Sunday, but officials likely won't declare a winner until Monday or later. Voters are also electing a new Congress.

Polls have shown Ortega would have trouble winning a December runoff. While he has a loyal base of support, many voters still have bitter memories of Sandinista rule, which left the country in an economic shambles and which saw 30,000 killed in a war against US-backed Contra rebels.

The balding, 60-year-old Ortega has repeatedly said he has changed. In fact, his vice presidential candidate was once one of his biggest enemies: Jaime Morales, who served as the spokesman for the Contras.

As Sandinista leader, Ortega seized Morales' six-bedroom estate and still uses it as his campaign headquarters. They reconciled after Ortega offered to pay Morales for his former home.

Marvin Lopez, a 46-year-old doctor waiting in a long line to vote at the polling station where Ortega was also casting his ballot, said he feared an Ortega win would bring back uncontrollable inflation and conflict.

"I don't want to return to a dictatorship, the misery, the abuse of families' rights," he said.

Waiting at the end of the line was 26-year-old student Gema Amaya Larios, who said she woke up at dawn to cast her vote for Ortega.

"He's the only one who will give the people what they need," she said. "Everyone else just cares about their own interests."

If Ortega wins, she predicted that his presidency would be different from his last five years in office, from 1985-1990.

"There was an embargo, a war," she said. "Besides, we all learn from our mistakes."

Amid fears of fraud, armed soldiers guard polling stations while more than 18,000 observers keep watch - including three former presidents: the United States' Jimmy Carter, Peru's Alejandro Toledo and Panama's Nicolas Ardito Barletta.

In a veiled reference to the United States and Venezuela, Toledo condemned "any interference, wherever it comes from, whether it be Asia, Europe, North America or Latin America," adding, "Let the citizens of all countries determine their own destiny."

Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel on Sunday accused the United States of "blackmail and pressure to twist this process" in Nicaragua.

"My little heart is with these elections," he said in Venezuela, quipping: "And as you all know, the heart is located on the left side of the human body."

Nicaraguan presidents can't serve two consecutive terms, and President Enrique Bolanos will step down Jan. 10 after a five-year term.