Ortega Ready to Return as Nicaragua's Leader Nicaraguans go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president. Left-wing Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega holds a strong lead in polls. Corruption scandals and a failure to attack deep poverty have undermined 16 years of U.S.-backed conservative governments in Managua.
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Ortega Ready to Return as Nicaragua's Leader

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Ortega Ready to Return as Nicaragua's Leader

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Nicaraguans vote Sunday for a new president. Polls show left-leaning Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega ahead of a pack of five presidential contenders. This is a familiar name to those who followed the news in the 1980s. Ortega was president of a left-leaning country that was fiercely opposed by the Reagan administration during the Cold War. Mr. Ortega was voted out in 1990, after a decade of civil war between his government and U.S.-backed Contra rebels. He now has his best chance to regain power.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

Mr. DANIEL ORTEGA (Presidential Candidate, Nicaragua): Gracias. Gracias.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: To the sound of a reworked version of John Lennon's Give Peace A Chance, Daniel Ortega addresses thousands of flag-waving supporters under an awning of flowers. He almost sounds like the revolutionary leader he once was.

Mr. ORTEGA: (Speaking foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have to gather all our strength to eradicate hunger, misery, insecurity, illiteracy and a lack of health services, he says.

But this is a new Daniel Ortega, or so he's telling everyone.

Mr. ORTEGA: (Speaking foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Reconciliation, he says, is more than just a principle of Christ, who said to us, love one another. This government will want Nicaraguans to be in tune with that principle, because through loving one another and practicing solidarity, poverty will disappear from Nicaragua, he says. Gone is the Marxist/Leninist rhetoric of the past. Ortega has found God. He recently supported a total ban on abortion in this country. There have been other changes, too.

The old saying that politics makes strange bedfellows is certainly on show here. Ortega's running mate is Jaime Morales, a former U.S.-backed Contra heavyweight. He spoke to NPR in his plush offices, his dog at his feet.

Mr. JAIME MORALES (Vice Presidential candidate, Nicaragua): (Through translator) I can understand why people are surprised. If I consulted the Oracle of Delphi, they would never have predicted that I would be running with Daniel Ortega.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But he insists times have changed here.

Mr. MORALES: (Through translator) I think we all change - people, society, countries - the revolutionary period has passed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, many of the old Sandinistas are now affluent business owners. Ortega signed a pro-business agreement this week in which he pledged to promote the private sector and free trade agreements. The United States isn't buying it and has been warning of dire consequences for the country should Ortega be elected. And even some of those on the left mistrust the new Ortega, too.

Mr. ALEJANDRO MARTINEZ CUENCA (Former Minister of Trade, Nicaragua): My name is Alejandro Martinez Cuenca. I was a minister of trade during the revolution, during Ortega's government.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cuenca says Ortega has betrayed his leftist roots.

Mr. CUENCA: More than an ideologist, he is a politician. A typical politician where he would do anything as long as he gets elected, even though he goes against principles that I thought we should always keep.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Others agree. Ortega is running against two Sandinista dissidents who have formed their own parties after he made a pact with the disgraced former President Arnoldo Aleman, now under house arrest for embezzlement.

Even so, he may just win for two reasons. First, his opposition have also split. The conservatives are fielding two candidates after internal fighting broke the party apart.

Second, Ortega's party pushed through a constitutional change that will allow any candidate to win outright in the first round if they have only 35 percent of the vote. Polls now show Ortega with 30 to 35 percent support.

In 2001, he lost with just over 40 percent. That means he could become president this time around by receiving less votes than in other years. Still, this election is about real issues. Emilio Alvarez(ph) is a political analyst.

Mr. EMILIO ALVAREZ (Political Analyst, Nicaragua): (Through translator) People are tired of misery. The communists were bad communists. And the capitalists have been bad capitalists.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sixty percent of this country lived on live less than $2 a day, and many of Ortega's supporters are among the most needy. The liberals, who have ruled this country since 1990, have faced repeated corruption scandals. They've arguably done little to improve people's lots.

Mr. ALVAREZ: (Through translator) People are looking for a new recipe that will allow them to have a better life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ortega's challenge is to convince them that an old recipe with some new ingredients is just as good.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Managua.

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