MANAGUA, Nicaragua—For those who remember the CIA-backed anti-Sandinista Contra war of Ronald Reagan's presidency, Sunday's election in Nicaragua is deja vu, with some odd twists.
Former Marxist revolutionary Daniel Ortega, the erstwhile Sandinista commander, is the front-runner. His running mate is a former Contra commander. Also seeking the presidential post is another famed Sandinista, Eden Pastora, once known as "Commander Zero."
But the former fighters, now grey-haired and paunchy, have tried to soften the memory of the bloody civil war with promises of reconciliation and clean government.
Time, it seems, is on their side: about half of the voting population is too young to remember the Contra war, making the race among a total of five candidates more about recent political scandals and corruption. It's uncertain any of the five will win outright in the first round.
"This election is not an ideological election between communism and democracy nor rich and poor," said political analyst Emilio Alvarez Montalban, 87. "This is an election between those who want to maintain caudillos in power or take a new democratic path."
"The old still has strength and the new hasn't developed strong enough currents," he said. "So we are in the middle of a river."
Polls have consistently given Ortega the lead to replace President Enrique Bolanos. But the top candidate must obtain at least 35 percent of the vote and a 5-point lead over the second-place finisher to avoid a run-off in December. If Ortega doesn't win in the first round, most analysts agree, he will lose in the runoff.
"There is a possibility of Ortega winning on the first round, but there is no guarantee," said Carlos Tunnermann, former ambassador to the United States during Ortega's presidency in the 1980s. "A key component here is the undecided voter, about 15 percent, and who they will support."
Tunnermann, now a political analyst and higher education consultant, remembers the Contra war era well.
The Sandinista revolution, led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), was a massive uprising that brought an end in 1979 to a family dynasty that had ruled the country for decades. Ortega was one of the leaders who touted a plan of economic transformation and reconstruction.
"Initially, there was a lot of hope," Tunnermann said. "The country was coming out of a dictatorship; people thought they were creating a new Nicaragua. The revolution was supposed to be purely Sandinista, not communist, non-aligned, with a mixed economy and political pluralism."
But Ortega's alliance with Cuba's Fidel Castro raised concern in the United States about the possible spread of communism, and the Reagan administration supported anti-Sandinista Contra rebels operating out of neighboring countries. That unleashed a conflict that ultimately claimed some 60,000 lives through the end of the 1980s and crippled Reagan during his second term after revelations that the administration had used money from secret weapons sales to Iran to fund the Contras.
"It was a tense era with very limited economic resources, little available on the supermarket shelves and a devalued currency," Tunnermann said. "Many of today's voters don't know that era, they don't know the hard part."
Ortega is again raising concerns in Washington with his continued alliance with Castro and now with Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez.
"The problem with Ortega is that he represents an old ghost that is anti-U.S. and a friend of communism," said Alvarez. "But it's a ghost with no teeth and no nails."
With such a large segment of the voting population younger than 30, the Chavez factor and Contra war may not mean much in this election, even as the 1980s conflict played a crucial role for voters in the three previous elections lost by Ortega since 1990.
But in Central America's poorest nation of 5.4 million, today's generation has more immediate concerns: widespread poverty, high unemployment, the lack of access to health care and education, official corruption and chronic power outages. About 70 percent of Nicaraguans live on less than $2 per day.
"These past 16 years of democracy has not solved the problem of inequality," said Cirilo Otero, 52, a sociology professor. "On the contrary, it's made it worse. Life for Nicaraguans had not gotten better."
Ortega, 60, has tried to sway voters with promises to end poverty, create jobs and bury the past in a box draped with unity, reconciliation and progress.
His closest competitor appears to be Eduardo Montealegre, 51, of the right-of-center Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance. The U.S.-educated banker favored by the Bush administration has promised "more and better employment."
Former Vice President and coffee grower Jose Rizo, 62, who also is promising jobs, is the candidate of former President Arnoldo Aleman's right-of-center Liberal Constitutionalist Party. Aleman is serving a 20-year sentence under house arrest on corruption charges.
Economist Edmundo Jarquin, 60, is the candidate of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, a breakaway group opposed to Ortega. Trailing last in the polls is Eden Pastora, 69, the legendary Commander Zero Sandinista leader who broke with the party in the 1980s.
Alvarez said many voters will choose the candidate they perceive as the strongest provider: "Nicaraguans are always looking for a grand protector," he said. "This is a culture that needs a caudillo even if that caudillo caused a lot of harm."
Young voters will turn to the candidate with the most charm, said Gustavo Montiel, 34, president of Youth for Democracy in Nicaragua, an independent civic organization.
"Young people are more emotional than rational when it comes to the vote," Montiel said. "Their vote will be based more on which candidate has more charisma, which one connects with them."
The memory of the Contra war is likely to be more of a factor in rural areas. "That is where deaths occurred, where bombs exploded, where buildings were destroyed," Montiel said.
No matter who wins, the next president will have to negotiate with the opposition, analysts said. The mere fact that this election has five candidates is positive. Previous elections have only had two candidates: Sandinista vs. Liberal.
"Even if Ortega wins, there is a possibility that the country will move forward," Alvarez said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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