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Nicaraguans Say No to Ortega's Presidential Bid

Central America: The former Sandinista rebel leader loses his third attempt to regain the post he held in the 1980s.

November 06, 2001|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Former Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega conceded defeat Monday in his bid for the presidency of Nicaragua, blaming his loss in part on United States opposition to his candidacy.

It was the third defeat in a row for Ortega in his effort to regain the presidency, which he held during the 1980s when his leftist government was battling U.S.-backed contra rebels.

He was defeated Sunday by businessman Enrique Bolanos, who strode through the packed Liberal party headquarters Monday afternoon as the crowd, reflecting this nation's love of baseball, chanted "Strikeout, strikeout, strikeout."

Bolanos, who was twice jailed while the Sandinistas were in power, was conciliatory in his acceptance speech. Supporters shouted his name, waved the red flag of the Liberals and danced in the stifling heat of the outdoor campaign center.

Bolanos pledged to improve the country's faltering economy and tackle the charges of corruption that have surrounded the government of President Arnoldo Aleman.

Election officials were still compiling results from more than 9,000 far-flung polling places late Monday. But with 13% of ballots counted, Bolanos held a comfortable 9-percentage-point lead over Ortega, with 53.7% to 44.7%. Exit polls showed the gap likely to widen.

"I will be a president for all Nicaraguans," shouted Bolanos, who served as Aleman's vice president until running for office.

A grim-faced Ortega accepted defeat earlier in the day at his home, which doubles as headquarters for the Sandinistas.

Top State Department officials repeatedly had expressed opposition to Ortega during the campaign, increasing their criticism after the Sept. 11 attacks by noting his past links with Libya and other nations accused of sponsoring terrorism.

Ortega did not mention the U.S. role during a gracious concession speech in which he pledged to continue to work as an opposition force in government for Nicaragua's poor. But in answering reporters' questions afterward, he said "external forces" had interfered in the campaign, leaving little doubt that he was referring to the Bush administration.

"This indisputably polarized the elections," said Ortega, 55. "Elements of fear were used and a dirty campaign was developed, a campaign of terror."

Ortega's level of support in the election was not much greater than during his bids for the presidency in 1990 and 1996, when he won 41% and 37% of the vote, respectively.

Ortega even was losing in his hometown, La Libertad, 47.3% to Bolanos' 48.9%, a defeat reminiscent of former Vice President Al Gore's loss in his home state of Tennessee during last year's U.S. presidential election.

Political analysts said the results showed that Ortega was too controversial a figure to win a majority of votes in this impoverished country of 5 million people.

"He divides the country, obviously," said Carlos Fernando Chamorro, son of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and publisher of Confidencial, an investigative magazine. "I don't know if he will be able to lead with real political power again."

Analysts also said Bolanos will face difficulties when he takes power in January. Though apparently winning with a sizable mandate, he will assume the leadership of a country where 70% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Bolanos will face other limits. Aleman will remain leader of the Liberals and has a seat in the National Assembly, which provides him immunity from prosecution. That will impede efforts to go after him with corruption charges.

Ortega first came to power in 1979, when he led a Marxist guerrilla army into Managua atop a tank. The Sandinistas tried to improve the lives of Nicaragua's poor, but they also seized private property and supported leftist movements elsewhere in Latin America.

Alarmed by a possible spread of Soviet influence, the Reagan administration began covertly financing the contra army to overthrow Ortega. The war ended in a draw but left more than 30,000 people dead and the country in economic ruins.

After his defeat in the 1990 presidential election, Ortega remained leader of his party and served as a deputy in the National Assembly.

Ortega underwent a dramatic make-over during the campaign, wearing bright pink shirts and pledging peace, love and understanding. He allied himself with members of more moderate political parties, and his rallies featured religious figures and American flags.

But none of that seemed to convince the electorate that Ortega had changed.

As news of Bolanos' victory spread, the capital broke out in spontaneous celebrations. Despite thunderclouds looming overhead, Bolanos supporters honked car horns, set off firecrackers and blocked intersections.

"We remember his past," Yolanda Sanchez Castro, 74, said of Ortega while casting her ballot at a school in one of Managua's poorest neighborhoods. "We are voting for peace."

An indication of opposition to Ortega could be found by comparing the results of National Assembly and presidential elections.

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