Sixteen years after falling from power, Daniel Ortega, the former Marxist revolutionary who battled US-backed rebel forces in Nicaragua throughout the 1980s, appeared to emerge victorious in Sunday's presidential election, according to preliminary results and quick counts by two of the country's respected observer groups.
With official results in from more than 60 percent of polling stations, Mr. Ortega has 38.6 percent of the vote. He needs to win at least 35 percent and hold a lead of 5 points to avoid a December runoff election. Eduardo Montealegre, a Harvard-educated conservative backed by Washington, trails him by 8 percentage points.
The win would deal a blow to the US, which has been keeping a close eye on their old cold war foe. US politicians warned that US aid and investment would wane in this Central American country – one of the hemisphere's poorest – if Ortega, an ally of Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez, retook the helm of Nicaragua.
It would be a remarkable win for Ortega, who had lost three consecutive bids for the presidency and has, over the years, made just as many enemies in Nicaragua as in Washington. The two leading conservative candidates splintered the vote – boosting Ortega's chances to acquire enough support to avoid a runoff, which most analysts say he would lose.
But Ortega has also drawn many voters who say that 16 years of conservative, Washington-backed administrations here have left them poorer than they were. Many say they have put the war behind them and believe Ortega when he says he has evolved into the only candidate who can bring the nation together.
"The split between the conservatives is fundamental to the outcome," says Wilmar Cuarezma, who studies Nicaragua's governability at the nonprofit Institute for Nicaraguan Studies in Managua. "But most important is people feel that the conservatives abandoned the poor, that poverty has increased. Public services have gotten too expensive and are not accessible to most of the people anymore."
This sentiment mirrors a leftward trend in the region, where voters in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and elsewhere have demonstrated their fatigue with conservative policies.
"Countries are choosing a national capitalism," says Oscar-Rene Vargas, a political analyst in Managua who supports Ortega.
Campaign ads by Ortega's opponents depicted him in army fatigues, a reminder of the war that wreaked havoc on Nicaragua throughout the '80s. But Ortega fashioned an image makeover, touting reconciliation and solidarity. On the campaign trail, he often said the war was buried forever. He spoke often of God, said the country needed a spiritual revolution, and even adopted John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" as his theme song.
Apparently, the new Ortega resonated with voters. Ilario López, a retired city worker, voted for conservative candidates throughout the '90s because he says he felt they would improve the country's economy. But he has been disappointed. "I am willing to give him [Ortega] another chance," says Mr. López. "If we don't have work, we don't have money, and we all suffer. He is not a guerrilla; he is our only hope to live in peace."
Sunday night and Monday, Ortega supporters took to the streets, setting off celebratory fireworks and waving black-and-red flags of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), from the backs of pickup trucks.
Analysts say that Ortega would have a difficult run in a second round, since the vote between the two conservative candidates was split. Indeed many of those voting for Mr. Montealegre or José Rizo, the other conservative, who is currently in third place with 22.93 percent, say they felt more strongly about Ortega losing than their own candidate of choice winning.
"I wouldn't mind if this went into a second round, because it would mean Ortega wouldn't win," says Manuel Cabrera, an accountant in Managua who cast his ballot for runner-up Montealegre. "The US has helped us a lot, and we are going to continue needing their economic assistance. I'm afraid an Ortega victory will ruin those relationships. He will care more about Venezuela and Cuba, and not our friends who have helped us."
The race saw a huge voter turnout, at over 70 percent. But Montealegre said the celebrations were premature. "No one has won here," he said as initial results trickled in. "The Nicaraguan people, in a runoff, will determine the next president."
The US Embassy released a statement saying it was too soon to "make an overall judgment on the fairness and transparency of the process," it read. "We are receiving reports of some anomalies in the electoral process."
Some here say the election was unfair at the outset because Ortega helped to lower the threshold for victory from 45 to 35 percent, with a five-point difference between the two leading candidates. He pushed through electoral-law changes with former president Arnoldo Alemán, who is now serving a 20-year sentence for embezzlement. "That can only happen in a country run by two gangsters," says Otto Reich, who was a senior official in the Reagan administration when it backed the Contra rebels against Ortega. "Ortega was willing to throw his country to the wolves" in order to win the presidency.
The US was not shy about voicing its dissatisfaction with an Ortega win, saying that aid and investment were likely to wane if he were in power. Some here now wonder whether US threats to block remittances or rethink free-trade agreements backfired.
"For Washington, it's clear that a lot of bravado and warnings did not really pay off," says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. If Ortega does emerge victorious, he says that "there is a lot of uncertainty about what direction he'll take. He is clearly an ally of Chávez, but what does that mean being the president of Nicaragua?"
Mr. Chávez sent fertilizer and cheap fuel to Nicaragua ahead of the election in what many claimed was a bid to bring voters into Ortega's fold, especially since Nicaragua has suffered an energy crisis in part because of the high cost of oil.
Ortega has promised to work with business leaders and has backed a trade deal with the US. He stopped short of claiming victory Monday night but said that, whoever wins, he's ready to work with other parties to "eradicate poverty and reassure the private sector and international investors."
• Ms. Llana is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.