US watches Nicaraguan poll

Endorsed by Venezuela’s virulently anti-US President Hugo Chavez and openly opposed by the US administration, Mr Ortega, 60, was the favourite in opinion polls ahead of the presidential election.

He hovered close to the 35 percent needed to win outright on Sunday, benefiting from the conservatives’ failure to rally behind a single candidate, with Jose Rizo of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) and Eduardo Montealegre, a PLC dissident, battling to defeat Mr Ortega and each other.

But pollsters said that Mr Ortega, who has already made two bids for the presidency after being voted out of office in 1990, would face renewed defeat if the election goes to a run-off between the two top vote-getters.

Mr Ortega was upbeat after he cast his ballot in Managua. “We have full trust in God and the Nicaraguan people that that the Nicaraguan people will win in the first round,” he told journalists gathered outside the polling station.

An icon of the international left in the 1980s when his Soviet-backed Sandinista government battled US-financed Contra rebels in a civil war that killed as many as 50,000 people, Mr Ortega has dramatically toned down his rhetoric, portraying himself as a peace-loving, God-fearing democrat.

US urges a vote against Ortega

But the United States still views him as a dangerous leftist with close ties to Cuba’s communist President Fidel Castro and Mr Chavez, and warned it would reconsider bilateral relations if he is elected.

Calling Mr Ortega “a tiger who has not changed his stripes,” US Ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli has been vocal in urging Nicaraguans to defeat the former revolutionary president, making it clear Washington favoured Mr Montealegre.

Mr Trivelli, who headed US President George W Bush’s electoral monitoring team, warned Mr Ortega’s victory would lead to “the introduction of a Chavez model” in Nicaragua.

Mr Chavez has delivered cheap diesel to the energy-starved Central American country through mayors of Mr Ortega’s Sandinista party rather than through the government of conservative President Enrique Bolanos.

Several US lawmakers have suggested blocking remittances from Nicaraguans living in the United States, causing an uproar in this country of 5.4 million people, where almost half the population lives in poverty and many rely on funds sent by US-based relatives.

“The ‘gringos’ have no business here,” said construction worker Antonio Castellon, 49, pointing to the Managua polling station where he cast his ballot.

“We know what we need: peace, unity, rice and beans,” he said.

Mr Trivelli has made it clear that Washington also opposed Mr Rizo, who has close ties with digraced former president Arnoldo Aleman.

Mr Aleman, who is serving a 20-year sentence for embezzlement of state funds, had stirred a storm of controversy in 2000, when he and Mr Ortega reached a pact that enabled the Sandinistas to take up key positions in government agencies.

Nicaragua’s almost three million eligible voters were also called to renew the 91-member unicameral Congress.

Former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo, who led an observer team alongside ex-US president Jimmy Carter, said no major incidents had been reported in the first hours of voting, though many polling stations opened later than scheduled.