Devil dons a halo for Nicaragua poll battle

The Sandinista leader turns over a new leaf, but the US is unconvinced
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George Bush once called him a "skunk". His leading opponent calls him "a Marxist devil". But from his new white-shirted choirboy image to his free-market promises, the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is a changed man. He even has the odd polite thing to say about the United States, but Washington is not quite convinced by his apparent transformation.

After trailing the conservative candidate, Arnoldo Aleman, all year by up to 20 percentage points in the opinion polls, Mr Ortega, 50, has surged to within three points. He now has a fighting chance of being voted back in as the President of Nicaragua in Sunday's election. If he is, he has promised a "kinder, gentler" Sandinista government than the pro-Moscow regime he led from the 1979 revolution until he was defeated by the conservative Violeta Chamorro in 1990.

Mrs Chamorro is not running this time. Mr Aleman, a bulky 50-year-old former Managua mayor, heads the Liberal Alliance, roughly the same conservative coalition which Mrs Chamorro led to victory in 1990.

Mr Aleman is still the favourite. But the polls suggest he may not reach the 45 per cent he needs to avoid a second-round run-off in November. The polls have Mr Aleman scoring around 41 per cent, and Mr Ortega up to 38. Horsetrading by the smaller parties would then tilt the balance one way or another in a head-to-head vote.

Mr Ortega has come a long way from the bespectacled, Yanqui-bashing revolutionary of 1979. He now wears contact lenses and has cast off his cowboy shirts with rolled up sleeves for billowing, collarless white shirts that give him an almost-saintly appearance.

His oratory is less fiery, too, partly as a result of a mysterious heart condition which forces him to visit Cuba twice a year for check-ups. The Sandinista anthem, which exhorts their followers to "fight against the Yanqui, enemy of humanity" has been "suspended" during the campaign. In its place, Beethoven's Ode to Joy with customised Spanish lyrics is belted out wherever he goes.

In an attempt to erode Mr Aleman's conservative support, Mr Ortega has enlisted some odd bedfellows. His vice-presidential running mate is Juan Manuel Caldera, a 68-year-old cattle rancher whose farms were confiscated by the Sandinistas in the Eighties.

Campaigning along with them are several of the Sandinistas' old arch- enemies, the American-financed Contra guerrillas who fought Sandinista rule in a bloody war throughout the Eighties. One renowned ex-Contra, known as Comandante Mack, who has been described as "a savage" for his human-rights abuses, has been introducing Mr Ortega at campaign rallies.

The Sandinista leader even tried to recruit a Yanqui into his campaign. Television commercials showed Mr Ortega posing with a US Democratic congressman, Bill Richardson, apparently an attempt to woo moderate voters who favour a rapprochement with Washington.

The commercial was later pulled off after Mr Richardson and the US government complained, saying the congressman had not given his permission and did not endorse Mr Ortega's candidacy.

Mr Ortega is campaigning on a platform of peace and greater prosperity. He has pledged not to reinstate the military draft, which was in place during his earlier rule because of the war with the Contras and the war of words with the US.

With 75 per cent of Nicaraguans still living in poverty or extreme poverty - it is the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere after Haiti - food and jobs will be the issues that swing the vote. Mr Aleman has pledged to create 100,000 new jobs in his first year in a nation of 4.2 million people where 54 per cent are either unemployed or have only partial or sporadic income.

Street crime, which grew after the end of Contra war and the lifting of the military draft, is another pressing issue. More than 60 violent gangs roam the streets of Managua alone, with names such as the Corpse- eaters, the Skinheads and the Medicine Men.