Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist rebel leader and Cold War enemy of the United States, marched toward a landslide re-election victory Monday morning after drawing broad support for his anti-poverty programs.
Ortega had 62.6 percent support based on a sample of votes from almost 40 percent of polling stations in Sunday's presidential election. Actual ballots showed a similar result as counting stretched into Monday, electoral officials said.
Ortega was far ahead of his two main conservative rivals, popular radio personality Fabio Gadea and former President Arnoldo Aleman, and Ortega's supporters poured into the streets of Managua on Sunday night to celebrate.
Ortega, 65, needed only 40 percent support to take a first round victory and avoid a runoff vote, and early results showed him scoring well above that level across the country.
Helped by financial support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, his close socialist ally, Ortega has won over many poorer Nicaraguans with welfare programs since taking office in early 2007 and was a hot favorite to win a new five-year term.
The programs to boost health and education, provide loans for businesses and help farmers have won widespread support in largely agrarian Nicaragua, which was a Cold War battleground in the 1980s when Ortega's left-wing Sandinista government fought U.S.-backed Contra rebels.
He's a person who looks after the poor and we have noticed the change, said 43-year-old Xiomara Amador, a former army nurse who lost her right leg in the conflict. In 16 years of other governments, no-one helped the handicapped.
In a separate presidential election in Guatemala, voters elected another Cold War veteran on Sunday, but from the other side of the ideological divide: retired right-wing general Otto Perez.
Ortega was a leader of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua that toppled the Somoza family's brutal dictatorship in 1979.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan saw the Sandinistas as a threat and backed right-wing rebels known as Contras in a decade-long civil war that killed around 30,000 people and wrecked the economy.
A REFORMED REBEL
Ortega was elected president in 1984 at the height of the war but was voted out in 1990 and then spent 16 years in opposition before bouncing back to power. He had gradually toned down his radical rhetoric and styled himself as a devout Christian by the time he won the last election in late 2006.
Since 2006, Ortega has cemented his hold on Nicaragua. About 57 percent of its people now live below the poverty line, down from 65.5 percent in 2005, according to government and World Bank statistics. And Ortega has let private businesses work untroubled even as he pushes his anti-poverty policies.
The economy grew 4.5 percent in 2010 and is expected to expand 4 percent this year, making it one of the best performers in Central America, although it is still the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, behind Haiti.
Critics accuse Ortega of using the Sandinistas' control of the Supreme Court to lift a ban on consecutive presidential terms in a controversial 2009 decision, and of planning to further extend his rule, just as Chavez has done in Venezuela.
If you breach the constitution, you can mess with other things too, said Milton Ramirez, a 35-year sales executive who voted for Gadea. We don't want another dictatorship.
Opponents also say Ortega has made the country too dependent on Venezuelan petrodollars, and that he has moved deliberately to weaken democratic institutions.
Yet Ortega still managed to neutralize the threat from the right, and Gadea and Aleman failed to unite against him even though the son of one is married to the other's daughter.
Gadea supporters accused Ortega's party of manipulating the electoral process on Sunday, stuffing ballot boxes and making it hard for conservatives to cast their vote.
But the fact voters backed him despite reservations about his leadership style shows Nicaragua has moved on from the painful war years, said Hector Perla, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Contrary to what most people believe, Ortega's re-election signals the end of polarization in the country, at least as far as the average voter is concerned, said Perla.
A Sandinista victory shows that ordinary Nicaraguans are no longer driven by ideologically-based arguments, but rather by economic results that benefit the majority of Nicaraguans.
(Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Kieran Murray)