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Sunday, 4 November, 2001, 11:37 GMT
Nicaragua's painful choice
Daniel Ortega
Ex-guerrilla Mr Ortega now calls for reconciliation
By the BBC's Nick Miles in Managua

An icon for left-wing sympathisers from the 1980s, the former Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega, may be on the brink of returning to power.

The country goes to the polls on Sunday. Latest figures put Mr Ortega, whose Sandinista party implemented a wide range of socialist policies during his eleven years in power, just ahead of the ruling Liberal Constitutionalist Party's (PLC) candidate, Enrique Bolanos.


Love is better than hate

Ortega slogan
It has been a long and acrimonious campaign with accusations from the PLC that Mr Ortega is an unreconstructed Marxist and not to be trusted.

The Sandinista leader meanwhile has campaigned on a ticket of love and reconciliation between Nicaraguans.

Reaching out

He has managed to draw in a number of other political parties, including the Christian Socialists and even former Contras, insurgents who fought the Sandinista government with US backing throughout the 1980s.

Enrique Bolanos
Mr Bolanos resigned from the vice presidency to run

At his final campaign rally in the town of Masaya the red and black bandanas that became synonymous with the party in the 1980's are ever present.

But so too are the candy-floss-pink Sandinista campaign posters, with slogans like "Love is better than hate" and "lets have a campaign full of love".

When Mr Ortega takes to the stage, wearing a leather jacket and jeans, the 55-year-old former guerrilla talks not of past conflicts but of ways of trying to reconcile all classes of Nicaraguans.

"Let's work together for the future," he says.

The apparent transformation of Mr Ortega from the guerrilla leader who toppled the corrupt Somoza dynasty in 1979, to apparent peacenik, is startling.

But it cuts little ice with liberal party candidate and former vice president Enrique Bolanos.

'Hollow words'

At a rally within shouting distance of Mr Ortega's meeting, Mr Bolanos called on his supporters to reject what he says are the hollow words of his opponent.

"Remember the 1980's, when the Sandinistas expropriated private property and carried out press censorship," he said.

Mr Bolanos was himself at the receiving end of those policies, having some of his own sugar plantations taken from him.

But while Mr Bolanos is playing on the Sandinsitas' past, political analysts like Carlos Chamorro say both candidates are offering the Nicaraguan people much the same package.

"They're talking the same language, spending programmes for the poor, more resources for education and health," he said.

Civil war

How either candidate will fund this is unclear. The legacy of the civil war that followed the Sandinistas coming to power still runs deep.

By the time the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, the economy's GDP had been halved in just over a decade. More than a decade later, inflation has been brought under control but Nicaragua still has $6billion of foreign debts, ten times the country's annual export earnings.

Ortega supporters
Little to choose between candidates

The backbone of the economy - coffee - has also been hit hard by falling prices.

In the hills around the town of Matagalpa in central Nicaragua, plantation labourers should be preparing to bring in the harvest. But some growers have decided it is not worth their while.

"It costs me $60 a bag to produce," coffee farmer Frank Lansass said, inspecting his ripened crop.

"But I'm only getting $45 a bag to sell it. What we need from a new government is immediate financial help otherwise we'll go bankrupt."

If the growers are in crisis, then the problems for the two hundred thousand families who rely on work on the plantations are even more acute.

Malnutrition

Hundreds of laid-off workers and their families are camped along the roads leading out of town, tatty lean-tos their only protection from autumn rains. Many of the children show signs of malnutrition.

"We're hoping that Daniel Ortega gets elected," the group's leader Julio Montiel said.

"We think he'll give us some land of our own so we can grow our own crops to survive on."

He may well be disappointed.

Even if Mr Ortega does become president, the country's economic problems mean he will have little room for manoeuvre financially.

See also:

03 Sep 01 | Americas
Timeline: Nicaragua
27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Nicaragua
28 Nov 00 | Americas
Sandinista electoral wins confirmed
03 Nov 01 | Media reports
Guide to the Nicaraguan elections
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