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Sandinista leader Ortega appears headed back to Nicaragua’s presidency

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Daniel Ortega, the revolutionary Marxist who battled a U.S.-backed Contra insurgency in the 1980s, was closing in on Nicaragua’s presidency, appearing Monday to have defeated four opponents with promises that he was a changed man.
    Electoral officials had yet to release final results from Sunday’s vote, but preliminary results and two of the country’s top electoral watchdog groups all gave Ortega about 40 percent of the vote.
    That was more than enough to avoid a runoff against Harvard-educated banker Eduardo Montealegre, who trailed by at least seven percentage points.
    Ortega’s rivals refused to recognize his victory, saying they would wait until all the votes had been counted. The United States, which has threatened to pull aid from an Ortega government, also said it was too soon to declare the Sandinista leader a winner.
    ‘‘This isn’t over until the last vote has been counted,’’ Montealegre said.
    If his victory is confirmed, the Cold War icon would join a growing number of leftist Latin American rulers, led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has tried to help his Nicaraguan ally by shipping cheap oil to the poor, energy-starved nation.
    ‘‘This is good for the people of Nicaragua and for the integration of Latin America,’’ Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told The Associated Press Monday.
    Ortega’s supporters celebrated in the streets late Sunday, swaying to his campaign song set to the tune of John Lennon’s ‘‘Give Peace a Chance.’’
    Herberto Jose Lopez, who earns about $235 a month selling CDs from a kiosk, said Monday he voted for Ortega in hopes that he would help Nicaragua’s poor.
    ‘‘I’ve got a wife and kid and I’m lucky because I have a job, but most people will tell you the same thing: The current administration just governs for the guys in ties,’’ said the 32-year-old Lopez.
    Some Nicaraguans worried that an Ortega win would drive away the country’s business leaders and elite, as they did the first time he came to power.
    ‘‘We’re just trying to figure out which country to go to,’’ said 27-year-old Karen Sandoval, a Coca-Cola marketer shopping with a friend at an upscale Managua mall. ‘‘This sets the country back 20 years.’’
    Ortega, who served as president from 1985-90, toned down his once fiery rhetoric during the campaign, promising to support the Central American Free Trade Agreement and even maintain good relations with Washington.
    The balding, 60-year-old leftist often appears more preacher than revolutionary, calling for peace and reconciliation and urging his supporters to pray.
    He says he has changed profoundly since he befriended Soviet leaders, expropriated land and fought Contra rebels in a war that left 30,000 dead and the economy in shambles.
    An Ortega victory would cap a 16-year quest to return to his old job. Ortega lost the presidency in 1990, ending Sandinista rule and the Contra war. He has run for president in every election since.
    Ortega’s vote percentage was similar to what he received in his last two failed presidential bids, but the right was divided this time between Montealegre and ruling party candidate Jose Rizo. The constitution allowed him to win on the first round with only 35 percent of the vote and a lead of five percentage points over his closest rival.
    With 40 percent of the vote counted, Ortega had 40 percent to Montealegre’s 33 percent. Three other candidates trailed: Rizo, Sandinista dissident Edmundo Jarquin and former Contra rebel Eden Pastora. Statistical surveys of votes conducted by two respected Nicaraguan electoral watchdog groups also both gave Ortega a similar margin.
    Electoral observers have said the vote was mostly peaceful and orderly, despite long lines and angry confrontations by people who said polling stations closed before they could vote. Observers from the Organization of American States said 2 percent of potential voters weren’t able to cast a ballot, and they estimated turnout around 70 percent.
    The race generated intense international interest, including a visit by Oliver North, the former White House aide at the heart of the Iran-Contra controversy, which created a huge scandal when it emerged that Washington secretly sold arms to Iran and used the money to arm the Contras.
    These days, U.S. money is flowing to Nicaragua in the form of investments by foreign companies drawn by the country’s cheap labor, low crime rates and recent decision to join the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
    Nicaraguan presidents cannot serve consecutive terms, and President Enrique Bolanos steps down Jan. 10.

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