Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega had a strong lead over four other candidates in an election that could return him to power 16 years after a US-backed rebellion helped force him from office, according to preliminary results released early yesterday.
With a little over 7 percent of polling stations counted, Ortega has 41 percent, to 33 percent for Harvard-educated Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, a party that broke from the ruling Constitutionalist Liberal Party after former president Arnoldo Aleman was convicted of corruption.
Trailing behind were Sandinista dissident Edmundo Jarquin, ruling party candidate Jose Rizo and former Contra rebel Eden Pastora.
Ortega needs 35 percent of the vote and an advantage of 5 percentage points over his closest rival to avoid a runoff next month.
Sunday's election has become a tug-of-war issue between Venezuela and the US. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has openly favored his "brother" Ortega, while Washington remains wary of the balding 60-year-old, once an iconic figure of the Latin American left and ally of the Soviet Union.
The US Embassy issued a statement late on Sunday saying it was too soon to "make an overall judgment on the fairness and transparency of the process."
"We are receiving reports of some anomalies in the electoral process, including the late opening of [polling places], the slowness of the voting process and the premature closing of some" polling places, the statement read.
Before reading the early results, Roberto Rivas, president of the Supreme Electoral Council, blasted the US statement, saying: "We have promised the Nicaraguan people transparent elections, and that's what we've done. I think there were enough observers to witness that."
Ortega's supporters flooded the streets, setting off celebratory fireworks, waving the party's red-and-black flag and swaying to the candidate's campaign song, set to the tune of John Lennon's Give Peace a Chance.
Montealegre brushed aside Ortega's lead, saying: "This doesn't show anything."
Constitutionalist Liberal Party spokesman Leonel Teller warned that electoral authorities were "inciting something that could end in blood and violence."
Observers said voting overall was peaceful, although many polling stations opened late, leaving long lines of people waiting to cast their ballots. After the polls closed, groups of angry voters pounded on shuttered doors, screaming at officials inside to let them vote.
Polls have shown Ortega would have trouble winning a runoff. While he has a loyal base of support, many voters still have bitter memories of Sandinista rule, which left the country in an economic shambles and which saw 30,000 killed in a war against US-backed Contra rebels.
Ortega has repeatedly said he has changed.