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Chamorro Is Running Strongly in Nicaragua : Elections: Early returns indicate that Ortega and Sandinistas may be headed for a stunning defeat.

February 26, 1990|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, a widowed newspaper publisher, appeared headed for a stunning upset of Sandinista President Daniel Ortega in Sunday's Nicaraguan elections, according to voting results collected and analyzed by the Los Angeles Times.

A Times projection based on vote tallies from a nationwide sample of representative polling places showed that Chamorro will get more than 50% of the votes and that Ortega will finish with a percentage in the low 40s.

It showed the 44-year-old Sandinista leader running virtually even with Chamorro, the strongest of his nine challengers, in Managua and Esteli but trailing her in Nicaragua's seven other regions.

If confirmed by official returns, a victory by Chamorro's U.S.-backed coalition would end a decade of rule by the Sandinistas who fought their way to power in a guerrilla war and allied themselves with the Soviet Bloc in a confrontation with Washington that led to an eight-year Contra war.

The election, the most contentious in Nicaragua's history, ended with a heavy turnout, a slow vote count and a long official silence.

At 2 a.m. today, eight hours after the polls closed, the government's Supreme Electoral Council announced the first returns. They showed Chamorro leading Ortega by 51.5% to 44% of the votes from 244 of the 4,391 polling places.

The Sandinistas postponed a scheduled midnight victory rally and Ortega held an urgent meeting with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who was here as an official election observer.

Chamorro's 14-party National Opposition Union (UNO) projected a landslide victory for the 60-year-old publisher on the basis of returns from a nationwide sample of 450 polling places. It gave her 59% of the vote to 41% for Ortega.

The challenger and her running mate, Virgilio Godoy, greeted more than 50 applauding campaign workers and Chamorro relatives at her home early today. Limping in a brace for her broken kneecap and wearing a white dress, Chamorro led her guests in the national anthem and the Lord's Prayer.

"The information available now is that the electoral council is indicating an ample victory for the UNO," Godoy later told cheering supporters at UNO's election headquarters. "Why are they holding up the results?"

The Sandinistas predicted victory shortly after the polls closed but announced no projections. As the evening wore on, tension set in at the ruling party's headquarters.

"I don't know what the nervousness is all about," said Carlos Zaruk, a Sandinista army official. "Why aren't we celebrating?"

The voting, aimed at ending eight years of guerrilla war, was heavy and remarkably peaceful throughout Nicaragua. Election officials said eight of the polling stations failed to open and two others were hastily transferred because of military activity by American-supplied Contras.

Both the Sandinistas and UNO reported what they called insignificant numbers of election law violations and said they felt buoyed by the big turnout.

"I think things have been going very smoothly," said former U.S. Atty. Gen. Elliot L. Richardson shortly after the polls closed at 6 p.m. "So far, the elections look fair." Richardson heads the U.N. observer mission and is one of more than 2,000 accredited vote monitors.

Ortega said after casting his ballot in Managua that he was certain of winning another six-year term and would invite President Bush to his inauguration.

"I expect that the government of the United States will recognize the results of the elections and work for peace with Nicaragua," Ortega said.

Chamorro, the strongest of Ortega's nine challengers, expressed her "faith in God and my people that Nicaraguans will vote for a change."

Voters leaving the polls echoed both predictions with a certainty and emotion that reflected the highly charged expectations of a bitterly contested--but surprisingly peaceful--six-month campaign.

"God has pity on the Nicaraguan people, and He is going to change things," said Mercedes Maldonado, 85, of Managua, who voted for the first time in her life. Bursting into tears, she told of how five of her children had left Nicaragua and how her sixth is ailing and cannot afford medicine. "My heart told me to vote for UNO," she added. "We have to free ourselves from this hunger."

Across the capital at a polling station near army headquarters, where scores of uniformed Sandinista soldiers lined up to cast ballots, Lt. Victor Brenis said he was voting for Ortega "to show imperialism that we have a democracy here."

Ortega, 44, was first elected in 1984, five years after his Sandinista National Liberation Front seized power from President Anastasio Somoza to end 43 years of U.S.-backed dictatorship. Chamorro, 60, served nine months on the first Sandinista junta, then quit to turn her newspaper, La Prensa, into the country's leading opposition voice.

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