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Preliminary Results Predict Ortega is Headed For Victory

By Jill Replogle 
and James C. Mckinley Jr.
THE NEW YORK TIMES


MANAGUA, NICARAGUA

Sixteen years after he left power, Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist president and the Sandinista leader who is still regarded as a sworn foe by many in Washington, appeared headed on Monday to a victory in the Nicaraguan presidential election.

Though electoral officials had yet to release final tallies from Sunday’s vote, preliminary results and the country’s electoral watchdog groups all predicted Ortega, who had failed twice before to gain the presidency in elections, would win a clear victory.

An Ortega win in a five-way race would mark a defeat for the Bush administration, who strongly opposed his election and worked hard to unite a fractious opposition against him with little success. The White House has said it will withdraw aid from an Ortega government.

With just more than 61 percent of the vote counted, Ortega had 38.6 percent of the ballots, about eight points ahead of the second-place candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, a Harvard-educated financier and conservative that Washington has openly supported.

Now 60 and balding, Ortega has maintained he is no longer a Marxist, but more of a pragmatist. He has promised to keep good relations with the United States and chose a former foe as his running mate. He has also vowed to help the poor and ran a positive campaign around the themes of “peace, love and unity.”

But he maintains close ties to Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the leftist president who has become a thorn in side of the United States. Chavez lent the Ortega campaign significant support by sending subsidized oil to Nicaragua and distributing it through Sandinista politicians.

Ortega’s victory appeared to be another gain for leftists in Latin America, who, despite recent setbacks in Peru and Mexico, have also persuaded voters to abandon conservative governments in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia.

Although the results were preliminary, supporters of Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front party set off fireworks around the city on Monday, and drove around honking horns, shouting victory slogans, and waving red and black Sandinista flags. Ortega had yet to make a statement.

Cuba immediately congratulated Ortega. “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 on Monday.

Ortega’s opponents refused to recognize his victory until all the votes were counted. The United States took a similar stance. The State Department’s deputy spokesman, Tom Casey, said on Monday that the administration would wait to comment until the Nicaraguan Electoral Commission announced who won. He also said it was too early to comment on procedural problems during the voting, noting that several groups of observers planned to file reports.

Casey said the U.S. delegation in Nicaragua had remarked on “high turnout and given praise to the Nicaraguan people for their patience and their willingness to show support for this democratic process.”