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Washington Post, November 3, 2006

Primer: Nicaraguan Elections

Sixteen years after losing power, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is poised to retake it. He leads four other presidential candidates after Nicaragua's Nov. 5 election.

Presidential Candidates

Daniel Ortega

Daniel Ortega, 60, is the candidate of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party. Ortega, who led the Sandinistas to oust Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, served as president from 1985 to 1990. Ortega lost elections in 1990, 1996 and 2001. The leftist Sandinista government is credited with implementing social programs and reforms, but is criticized for economic ineptitude. Ortega tapped a former foe for his campaign, choosing ex-Contras spokesman Jaime Morales as a running mate.

Despite Ortega's anti-capitalist record and previous criticisms of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, he has softened his rhetoric during the campaign, saying he has changed his Marxist ideology and will maintain economic relations with the United States.

Jos? Rizo

José Rizo, 62, is the candidate of the ruling Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), the main opposition to the Sandinistas. A coffee farmer by trade, Rizo served as vice president under President Bolanos before resigning to run for the presidency. He is backed by former president Arnoldo Aleman, who was convicted of money laundering and fraud in 2003. Rizo has tried to distance himself from Aleman, who is currently under house arrest.

Eduardo Montealegre

Eduardo Montealegre, 51, heads the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), which split from the PLC after party leader Arnoldo Aleman's fraud conviction. The Ivy League-educated banker was foreign minister under Aleman and finance minister for President Enrique Bolanos. Montealegre, a favorite of the U.S. Embassy and business elites and is Ortega's closest rival. Montealegre has tried to portray himself as an antidote to government corruption.

Edmundo Jarqu?n

Edmundo Jarquín, 59, became the candidate of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) after former Mangua mayor Herty Lewites' sudden death in July. Jarquín is a former Sandinista diplomat and also served as an economist with the Inter-American Development Bank.

Ed?n Pastora

Edén Pastora, 69, of the Alternative for Change (AC) party is a former guerrilla leader famous for his exploits as "Commandante Cero." He has trailed the four major candidates with around one percent of the vote in pre-election polls.


Nicaraguans went to the polls Nov. 5, 2006, to elect a president and members of the National Assembly for five-year terms. The president is elected by popular vote; 90 legislative deputies are elected by proportional representation from party lists. In order to win in the first round, a candidate must either gain 40 percent of the vote outright or win 35 percent and lead the second-place candidate by at least five percentage points.

The government's electoral branch, the Supreme Electoral Council, organizes and conducts elections. The council is led by seven magistrates who are elected to five-year terms by the National Assembly.

Frequently Asked Questions

» What are the results of the election?

Early election results show Ortega poised to win the presidency in the first round of voting with a strong lead over Montealegre. After 15 percent of polling stations were counted, Ortega had 40 percent of the Nov. 5 vote, compared with 33 percent for Montealegre. The other candidates, Edmundo Jarquin, Jose Rizo and Eden Pastora, trailed well behind. Ortega would have faced a difficult second round because his split opposition would have united behind a single candidate.

Election observers said voter turnout was high and balloting proceeded smoothly. Overall the voting was peaceful, despite long lines at polling stations that opened late.

The PLC and FSLN parties hold nearly all the seats in the National Assembly and were expected to maintain their strength in the legislature.

» What are the major issues to Nicaraguan voters?

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with about half the population living below the poverty line. The country has a high debt and unemployment rate, and has struggled to rebuild its economy after years of financial mismanagement, civil war and natural disasters.

The country has also been experiencing electrical blackouts, and there is concern that a power outage on election day would interfere with voting. Corruption has also been an important issue, as Nicaraguans express a growing dissatisfaction with the democratic process and a desire for governmental reform.

However, the biggest issue in this election has been Ortega as a candidate. While the Sandinistas retain a solid core of support of one-third of voters, a majority has repeatedly voted against him. Many voters' concerns, such as land ownership and property security, stem from the economic instability of Ortega's rule during the 1980s, when U.S. backed contra rebels waged war on the Sandinista government. In the 1990s, Ortega denied accusations by his stepdaughter that he sexually molested her when she was young.

» What is el pacto?

In 1999, Daniel Ortega and former president Arnoldo Aleman formed a controversial pact between the Sandinistas and the Liberal Constitutionalist Party. Many Nicaraguans have grown tired of the pact, saying leaders of the competing parties tolerate each other's corruption in order to maintain influence. The pact has also stripped current President Enrique Bolanos of much of his presidential power. He was expelled from the Liberal Constitutionalist Party in 2003 and has been fending off efforts to impeach him since.

» What interest do other countries have in this election?

The United States and Venezuela view Nicaragua as a key country in a battle for influence in Latin America. Election monitor groups have accused both countries of interfering, and the Organization of American States has warned countries not to meddle in the election.

The United States fears that Ortega would be a destabilizing presence in the region. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has thrown his full support, along with shipments of cheap oil and fertilizer, behind Ortega and the Sandinista party.

» What part does the United States play in the election?

A big one. While diplomatic protocol holds that the United States does not get involved in other country's elections, the rule is observed in the breach in Central America. As in the 2001 election, the United States has been vocal in its disapproval of Ortega and its support for his opponent - Montealegre -- in this election. The United States views an Ortega victory as a setback for democracy in Nicaragua, saying Ortega would discourage investment and hurt Nicaragua's slowly-growing economy. U.S. officials also fear an alliance between an Ortega-led government and the leftist governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Castro's Cuba.

Nicaragua relies heavily on aid from the United States and is part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. U.S. officials have warned Nicaragua that an Ortega win would strain the relationship between the two countries and could reduce the flow of aid. The United States also opposes PLC candidate Jose Rizo, an ally of the convicted former president, Arnoldo Aleman, suggesting he represents a throwback to Nicaragua's corrupt past.

Sources: Staff and wire reports, U.S. Department of State, La Prensa, Latin Business Chronicle | Compiled by Heather Farrell, washingtonpost.com; Editing by Amanda Zamora and Jeff Morley, washingtonpost.com

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