When Nicaraguan presidential candidate Daniel Ortega Saavedra cast his ballot Sunday, the former president, Marxist dictator, and US government bte noire predicted a first-round victor would emerge from the vote.
He was right. It just wasn't him.
Mr. Ortega lost in his comeback bid to Arnoldo Alemn, a former mayor of Managua and presidential candidate of the conservative Liberal Alliance. Partial official returns Monday morning showed Mr. Alemn with around 50 percent of the vote, averting the runoff required if no candidate wins 45 percent of the vote in the initial election.
Alemn's margin over Ortega, who was taking about 39 percent of the vote, appeared comfortable enough to allow the president-elect to discount any questioning of the results by Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN)
What it won't allow him to do, however, is disregard the FSLN as he sets out after his Jan. 10 inauguration to address Nicaragua's deep economic and social challenges. The Sandinista Front will be the second-largest bloc in the incoming National Assembly and important enough to cause Alemn trouble if he doesn't fashion some kind of conciliatory working arrangement.
In that sense Ortega was not an all-out loser in Sunday's elections, since he becomes a member of the Assembly by virtue of the number of votes he received, and will very likely maintain his high-profile role in the Sandinista leadership.
Alemn and Ortega each led a campaign that fed fears about the other. Alemn warned that Ortega may have changed his faade to favor the market economy and private property, but that he is still the Marxist who gave Nicaragua 30,000 percent inflation, confiscated thousands of properties, and pushed Nicaragua into a civil war that tore apart thousands of families.
Ortega, on the other hand, fed the perception that Alemn is the mouthpiece of Nicaragua's wealthy few and that he has the authoritarian tendencies of the 45-year Somoza family dictatorship ended by the Sandinistas in 1979. Those labels were most disconcerting to Nicaragua's poor - especially those who made some gains, such as land ownership, under Sandinista rule.
In his victory speech, Alemn emphasized reconciliation of the sharply divided left and right. He has, however, called for a truth commission to review the Sandinista years, an idea that is frightening to the Sandinistas and others who think it could cause deepen political animosity in the country.
But Alemn and the Sandinistas - both of whom also spoke of peace and national unity in the campaign - will have to move beyond words, analysts and average Nicaraguans say. "For the good of Nicaragua, Alemn will have to come to some kind of an accord with the Sandinistas," says Richard Downing, a Nicaraguan-American who now divides his time between Nicaragua and Miami as a result of the 1980s civil war. "They are a significant reality in the country."
Representatives of Alemn and Ortega had in fact initiated preliminary contacts in the days preceding Sunday's vote, according to one well-placed foreign diplomat here.
Despite the presence of candidates from 24 political parties and alliances, the election revealed a stronger tendency among voters to choose between the principal left and right alternatives than most pre-vote polls had indicated. "Nicaraguans voted a kind of referendum" on what path they want the country to take, says Silvio de Franco, a political analyst here. That "referendum vote" favored choosing between the "two basic and distinct alternatives," he says, offered by the country's major political forces.
Early returns suggest the Sandinistas came much closer to the Liberal Alliance in legislative races than in the presidential contest, while third parties could take up to one-third of the National Assembly.
As Nicaraguans waited in line eight hours or more at some polling stations to cast their votes, they repeated time and again the two principal concerns they want their next president and Assembly to address: maintaining peace, and jobs. With about 20 percent of the working population unemployed, another third underemployed - and the per capita income a miserable $626 - Nicaraguans apparently decided that Alemn is better suited to addressing these issues.
"All my friends are for Alemn, he'll be better at getting the economy moving," says Jos del Gallido, an agronomy student at the national university in Len. "We need foreign investment, but that would have frozen up with Ortega because of the doubts about him."
Ortega tried to become the choice of the majority by softening his image, embracing former enemies like former contra resistance fighters, and campaigning for unity and reconciliation.
While he did manage to bring home some Sandinista sympathizers who for a long time seemed hesitant to choose him again - polls showed him with only about a quarter of the vote a few months ago - he failed to convince new voters. In Nicaragua's first modern democratic elections in 1990, he garnered 42 percent of the vote, several points more than in Sunday's vote.