MANAGUA — Once again, Nicaragua faces a possible Sandinista restoration. The country voted Sunday in an unprecedented presidential election with four competitive candidates, and the question on everyone’s lips is whether Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who lost by more than 10 percent in each of the last three presidential votes, will succeed in regaining power this time.

If the final tally of Sunday’s results show that he failed to win a plurality in the first round, he will face a runoff election, one that he could lose if conservative voters rally behind his rival. Nicaragua’s politics are polarized between a Sandinista minority and a majority that is clearly anti-Sandinista, yet Ortega has a real chance of winning. How is this so?

Despite conspicuous efforts by the Bush administration to unify Nicaragua’s right, the anti-Sandinista forces are divided. The traditional wing, the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), controlled by former President Arnoldo Aleman, who is under house arrest since being convicted of corruption, has Jose Rizo as its candidate.

The moderate wing, the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), is led by banker Eduardo Montealegre, with huge support from the private sector and the Bush administration.

But the FSLN (the Sandinista National Liberation Front), too, has suffered a major rupture, with the emergence of a new option on the democratic left in the form of a breakaway Sandinista faction that has managed to win the support of independent voters. Its candidate, the economist Edmundo Jarquin, is a former expert on governance issues at the Inter-American Development Bank.

A backroom deal reached between Aleman and Ortega in 2000, intended to carve up power between the two men, established a 40 percent threshold for a candidate to win the presidency in the first round. In addition, and in exchange for personal benefits, then President Aleman promulgated a rule that looks tailored-made to suit Ortega: candidates can win in the first round with only 35 percent of votes if there is a 5 percent difference between the leading contender and the runnerup.

The emerging forces represented by Montealegre and Jarquin agree on the need for political reform to undo that Ortega/Aleman pact, which has politicized the judiciary, the national accounts and the electoral system. Concerning economic policy, they differ on the degree of continuity or change that should be pursued, and over recent reforms that have produced moderate economic growth but with no improvement whatsoever in the living conditions of the 50 percent of the population who live in poverty.

Paradoxically, Ortega entered the final stages of the campaign with about 33 percent of the vote, far below his historical high of 42 percent. Yet he may just win due to the divided opposition.

In a parody of John Lennon’s song “Give Peace a Chance,” Ortega has barnstormed the country in the manner of a religious preacher, offering “peace, jobs, and reconciliation.”

He condemns wild capitalism, but proposes no systemic change as an alternative. The only new elements in his program are handouts for Venezuela’s populist president, Hugo Chavez, which will also mean political alignment between the two leaders if Ortega wins.

Despite polls that put Ortega in the lead, many voters kept their views hidden. With this warning in mind, three scenarios are possible:

Ortega doesn’t win in the first round, as the hidden vote turns massively against him. He then is soundly defeated in a runoff against Montealegre as anti-Ortega voters unite against him. If that happens, Nicaragua will have a president with a strong popular mandate and the possibility of establishing a viable democratic alliance in Congress.

Ortega wins outright in the first round, fueling economic uncertainty, as investors, savers and external donors are seriously worried by his past. How long they worry, of course, depends on his behavior in office. Despite his revolutionary rhetoric, Ortega would have no chance of enacting substantial change, because he would lack a congressional majority.

Even so, the country’s stability, always precarious, would depend on his relations with the United States, which have long been poisoned by mutual hostility. Moreover, his victory would mean a new and unconditional ally for Chavez, one with more symbolic than real influence, but economically dependent on Venezuela in a region dominated by the influence of the U.S. and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.

The electoral result is too close to call a winner. It is feared that the Supreme Electoral Council, strongly dominated by the FSLN and the PLC, may not administer the vote counting impartially. Selective fraud, at the very least, remains a risk. This poses a huge challenge for international electoral observers — the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Carter Center — if they are to prevent a situation similar to Mexico’s recent postelection impasse.

The only certain result that will come out this election is that a new Congress will emerge, and that it will weaken the Aleman-Ortega pact that has held current President Enrique Bolanos administration hostage. Thus, any new government will have more room for democratic maneuver in a fragmented Congress of four strong electoral blocs.

Nicaragua faces a hugely complex future. But that complexity is much more promising than the current immobility.

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