Ortega's hopes hit by ballot fiasco

More than 2 million Nicaraguans voted yesterday on whether to return Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to power or opt for another conservative government to replace that of President Violeta Chamorro.

But a failure both to register 130,000 voters on time, almost 5 per cent of the electorate, and to get ballot slips to outlying areas, sowed the seeds of a dispute if the result is close. Even in the capital, Managua, where former United States President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker toured as observers, ballot slips had not arrived at some polling stations hours after voting was supposed to start.

Mr Ortega, 50, a leader of the 1979 revolution and president from 1984- 90, is running against a conservative lawyer and coffee farmer, Arnold Aleman, of the Liberal Alliance, a re-hash of the coalition which Mrs Chamorro led to victory in 1990. The result should be known today, with a second round planned next month if no candidate scores 45 per cent.

Mr Aleman, also 50, headed the Sandinista leader by 20 percentage points in the summer but Mr Ortega narrowed the lead with a slick campaign in which he apologised for past mistakes and said he had switched to free market ideas. Hovering over the vote was the spectre of renewed civil strife if the result is close, if there are allegations of fraud or if armed groups in the central highlands carry out their threat of renewed guerrilla warfare.

Despite the 1990 disarmament agreement which ended a 10-year war between the army and the US-backed Contra guerrillas, about one-third of the country remains under the control of guerrilla groups known as los rearmados (the re-armed ones). A few are demobilised Sandinista soldiers but most are former Contra guerrillas. Although they number perhaps only 500 men in total, they control a large swathe of territory. At least one group, the Andres Castro United Front (FUAC), threatened to attack troops or police if they entered rebel territory on election day.

Voting appeared peaceful, despite heated campaigning.

Sources in the Supreme Electoral Council, which oversaw the election, said the council came close to postponing the vote by a day when it became clear that the ballot slips had not yet reached many outlying areas. As well as president, voters had to choose national deputies, mayors, local councillors and representatives to the regional Central American parliament.

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