Nicaragua's former Marxist president Daniel Ortega looked almost certain to complete a long climb back to power yesterday with an election win that could upset his old Cold War enemy, the US.
Ortega had a clear lead as results trickled in from Sunday's presidential vote and victory was expected to be confirmed with a final batch of returns yesterday. Thousands of his left-wing Sandinista party supporters celebrated in the streets on Monday night, some on horseback.
After meeting with former US President Jimmy Carter late on Monday, Ortega called on Nicaraguans to be patient, saying "no one wins until the electoral council says so." Three out of his four rivals also refused to cede defeat.
Ortega had received 38.6 percent of the votes tallied from more than 60 percent of polling stations, almost 8 points ahead of his conservative, pro-US rival, Eduardo Montealegre.
The leftist, who led a 1979 popular revolution and then fought US-trained and financed Contra rebels in a devastating civil war throughout the 1980s, needs to win at least 35 percent and hold a lead of 5 points to take victory in the first round and avoid a dangerous runoff.
His expected return to power 16 years after losing a 1990 election near the end of the war is a setback for Washington and a boost for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is trying to build a Latin American alliance of anti-US leaders.
Ortega, 60, has dropped his Marxism of the Cold War era and now speaks mainly of God, peace and reconciliation.
He stopped short of claiming victory on Monday but said that, whoever won, he was ready to work with other parties to "eradicate poverty and reassure the private sector and international investors."
He promises to work with business leaders and has backed a trade deal with the US, but US officials still worry about his friendship with Chavez.
Venezuela's leader helped Ortega's election campaign by sending cheap fertilizer and fuel to Sandinista-led groups. Many expect Chavez to spend some of his country's petroleum wealth to finance social programs in Nicaragua, which lags behind only Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
"Venezuela's cooperation is the best. With help, the Nicaraguan people can get ahead," said Carlos Espinoza, a young Sandinista, at celebrations in Managua.
Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage said Ortega's victory was a "resounding defeat" for the US.
Still, Ortega knows well the cost of confrontation with Washington. Some 30,000 people were killed in the Contra war and a US economic embargo caused chaos, helping to wreck the Sandinistas' ambitious education and health programs.
Combined with his Marxist government's mismanagement and heavy-handed repression of dissent, Ortega left power when voters elected the first of three straight Washington-backed presidents in 1990.
US officials recently warned of a cut in investment and aid to Nicaragua if Ortega returned to power.