MANAGUA, Nicaragua — With an army of observers keeping watch, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega makes his fourth attempt to return to the presidency today in an election being monitored closely by the United States and its antagonist Venezuela.
Ortega, 60, who spent nearly a decade fighting U.S.-backed Contra rebels, is the front-runner in the race with four other candidates. He can avoid a runoff if he wins 35 percent of the vote and beats his main opponent, Harvard-educated banker Eduardo Montealegre, by 5 percentage points.
The latest polls showed Ortega with an easy lead over Montealegre, but just shy of the 35 percent needed to win outright. The December runoff would likely be much more difficult for Ortega to win, mostly because the votes won't be splintered between five candidates as they are now.
Whatever the results, today's vote in the Western Hemisphere's second-poorest nation after Haiti will send shockwaves through the region. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is hoping to acquire an additional ally in leftist Ortega, while the U.S. wants a pro-business candidate who will maintain close ties and protect growing foreign investments.
Thanks to a low crime rate and cheap labor, Nicaragua stands to benefit the most from the recently implemented Central American Free Trade Agreement. Cavernous textile factories are popping up on the outskirts of towns and cities, offering jobs for about $150 a month — roughly 60 percent more than minimum wage.
More investors want to come, but few are making any decisions until Sunday. today They still remember the 1980s, when Ortega seized land and businesses and left the local currency in shambles. Thousands of wealthy Nicaraguans fled to the U.S., taking their money and resources with them.
"Everyone is waiting at the door right now," said Justin Westbrook, the American head of an upholstery factory that is one of the few clients in a new industrial park just outside of Managua.
Westbrook said he isn't worried about an Ortega win, but he does wonder how the world might react. "I'm more concerned about what our government would do than what this government would do," he said.
Ortega has remade his image, promising peace, love and reconciliation, and pledging to maintain ties with Washington and even encourage free trade with the U.S. But he also says he'll promote close relations with Venezuela, laying the groundwork for what would be a delicate balancing act between the two political adversaries.
Ortega's supporters argue that the world should be more concerned with the gap between rich and poor in the country. Laura Mejia, a 36-year-old sewing jeans for Wal-Mart at a new factory near Granada, said she isn't worried about her employer pulling out of Nicaragua.
"They aren't going to throw away everything they have invested," she said.
She plans to vote for Ortega on Sunday, saying: "I'd like someone who really cares about the poor, who will fight for fair wages."
The campaign has been vicious, with threats of violence and allegations of fraud. Armed soldiers and police have been deployed nationwide to guard polling places as ballots and other materials are unloaded from trucks.
Roberto Rivas, president of the Supreme Electoral Council, said Friday that officials were investigating reports of people placing phone calls to voters and threatening war if Ortega wins.
He tried to calm fears and rumors of fraud, saying: "We have nearly 17,000 electoral observers. It looks like we are electing the president of the world."
Among the observers will be three former presidents from the Americas: Jimmy Carter of the U.S., Alejandro Toledo of Peru and Nicolas Ardito Barletta of Panama.
Still, the candidates have expressed doubts about the reliability of the final results. To quell fears, the independent Nicaraguan nonprofit agency Civic Group for Ethics and Transparency said Saturday it will carry out a quick count of votes from a sample of voting stations.
The results, with a margin of error of less than 0.5 percent, will serve as a gauge of possible problems. Exit polls are prohibited.
Results will begin to trickle in late Sunday, but officials might not declare a winner until Monday or later.
Nicaraguan presidents can't run for re-election, and President Enrique Bolanos will step down Jan. 10 after a five-year term. On Friday, he told voters "the future is in your hands."
"We should vote to preserve the freedoms that we now enjoy, vote out of respect for ourselves and our society," he said.