Results are still coming in from Sunday’s elections in Nicaragua; El Nuevo Diario gives former president Daniel Ortega a narrow lead, with 40.1% of the vote and about 40% counted (although the official election site seems stuck on only 15% counted).
To avoid having to go to a second round, the leading candidate either has to have above 40%, or above 35% with a margin of at least 5% ahead of their nearest rival. So far, Ortega is doing both, but only just: second placegetter Eduardo Montealegre is a little over 7% behind, on 32.7%.
This is particularly important because it is generally thought that Ortega would lose a run-off. Conservative Montealegre would expect to pick up most of the votes from third-placed José Rizo of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party, currently on 20.3%. It’s another example of the superiority of preferential voting; the thresholds for first-round victory were recently lowered to avoid unnecessary run-offs, but in this case the result could be a winner who conspicuously lacks majority support.
Those of a certain age will not need to ask the question “Why should we care about Nicaragua?” Throughout the 1980s, Daniel Ortega, head of the Marxist Sandinista regime, was bogeyman number one in Washington: the Reagan administration illicitly funded a violent insurgency, the Contras, to overthrow him, and support for Nicaragua became de rigueur in some sections of the left.
The Sandinistas were ousted in 1990, not by the insurgents but by a democratic vote. This was embarrassing in about equal measure for the US, which had said Ortega would never agree to fair elections, and for the left, who had assured everyone that the Sandinistas enjoyed overwhelming popular support.
Since then, Ortega has been beaten twice more for the presidency, but this time he has reinvented himself as a mainstream social democrat, with a former Contra as his running-mate. His opponents say he remains an authoritarian at heart; now at looks as if Nicaragua will find out if they are right.