Ortega in reach of victory in Nicaragua

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The Independent US

More than a generation after he and the Sandinistas first swept to power in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega appears to have secured a historic victory to become the country's President again. If confirmed, the outcome will be a huge embarrassment to the United States, which actively campaigned against him.

With 60 per cent of the vote counted Mr Ortega had 38.6 per cent, with his nearest rival Eduardo Montealegre, of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance on 33 percent. Extrapolations carried out by two Nicaraguan electoral watchdog groups both gave Mr Ortega a similar margin. Mr Ortega requires either 40 per cent, or else 35 per cent, with a five point margin over the second placed candidate.

Mr Montealegre claimed that Sunday's vote was marred by irregularities and predicted the contest would go to a second round next month, which many observers believe he would probably win as he would pick up the votes of the third-placed candidate, Jose Rizo.The American embassy also issued a statement claiming it had received reports of anomalies and that it was too soon to "make an overall judgement on the fairness and transparency of the process".

Yet international observers said they believed voting had proceeded fairly.Speaking from Managua, Jennifer McCoy, a spokeswoman for the Carter Centre which is helping to monitor the election, told The Independent: "Reports from our people around the country say that the process was substantially good, with very few challenges at the precinct level, which is where challenges have to be made if there is going to be a recount. However, we are still investigating claims about the longer-term process - that is, the conditions in the run-up to the election."

Roberto Rivas, president of the country's Supreme Electoral Council, flatly rejected claims of irregularity. He said: "We have promised the Nicaraguan people transparent elections, and that's what we've done. I think there were enough observers to witness that."

Mr Ortega headed the revolution that swept aside the American-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He was elected President in 1984 in elections that international observers announced were fair but which were boycotted by his opponents.

During the 1980s the Sandinistas were engaged in a bloody and brutal war against anti-government Contra rebels who were supported and funded by the United States in a war that led to the deaths of around 30,000 people.

When Mr Ortega ran for re-election in 1990 he was beaten by Violeta Chamorro, who was supported by the US. His subsequent attempts at re-election were also opposed by America.During this campaign, the US ambassador in Managua, Paul Trivelli, had been outspoken in his support for Mr Montealegre and claimed that Mr Ortega was a throwback to the past. Other American officials also threatened to withdraw aid from Nicaragua in the event that Mr Ortega won.

In addition, in one of the more extraordinary interventions, Colonel Oliver North, the one-time White House official convicted over his part in the Iran-Contra affair in which the proceeds of weapons sales to Iran were covertly diverted to the Contras, also travelled to Nicaragua to denounce Mr Ortega.

On Sunday night thousands of Mr Ortega's supporters set off fireworks and raced through the streets of Managua waving black-and-red party flags. Senior party members embraced at a celebration in the capital.