MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) _ Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega conceded defeat Monday to the governing party presidential candidate, Enrique Bolanos, who had once been imprisoned by a past Ortega government.
``We accept the mandate of the people and congratulate the Liberal ticket,'' Ortega said. He promised to continue working for national reconciliation and a free-market economy, from within the country's National Assembly, or congress.
With 5.4 percent of the vote counted, the Liberal party's Bolanos had 61,100 votes or 53 percent, while Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front trailed with 45.3 percent or 52,297, according to Roberto Rivas, the president of the country's Supreme Electoral Council.
The first results, delayed because of late closing of voting places, also had the Liberal party headed for control of the national assembly.
Results indicated Ortega had failed to convince voters of his transformation from a Marxist revolutionary to a free market believer. The United States had openly opposed Ortega's election campaign.
Even before the first official results were made public, Bolanos supporters at his campaign headquarters were celebrating results from their own private polling _ which could not be released under election rules. His Constitutionalist Liberal Party backers cheered and chanted, ``Strike Out! ... Strike Out!'' _ a reference to what they assumed was a third consecutive election defeat for Ortega.
``We are happy with the results,'' party official Wilfredo Navarro told state-run Radio Nicaragua. ``This triumph is a triumph of democracy.''
Turnout was so great in Sunday's voting that election officials said some voters were still queued up to cast ballots at 11:30 p.m. _ 5 1/2 hours after the lines to vote were closed nationwide.
``I was struck by the fact that in nearly every single village we could see long lines of people who were waiting to vote,'' said U.S. Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican who was part of a congressional observation group that toured the country by helicopter.
It was Ortega's second attempt to regain the presidency he lost in 1990 elections. Those elections ended 11 years of Sandinista rule marked by a U.S.-backed rebellion in which tens of thousands died.
Bolanos, 73, is a former vice president who saw most of his businesses confiscated during the Sandinista era.
Former President Carter was among thousands of local and foreign poll watchers scattered across the nation of 5 million people to monitor the voting.
Once a socialist revolutionary who wore olive-green uniforms as president, Ortega sought to soften his image, campaigning in pink shirts and with the slogan ``the path of love.''
His earlier governments followed socialist policies, confiscating property, jailing opponents and drafting tens of thousands of youths to fight U.S.-backed rebels while trying to bring jobs and food for all.
Ortega has vowed to follow market-based policies and to seek good relations with the United States. He said his government would include several people who had been jailed by the Sandinista government of the 1980s. But U.S. officials openly tilted against him, expressing concern about his party's past ties to terrorists and its past socialist policies.
Bolanos promised to continue the free-market policies of outgoing President Arnoldo Aleman, but with a greater emphasis on fighting corruption. Allegations of shady dealings stained the reputation of the outgoing government.
Under a Liberal-Sandinista deal that reformed the constitution, third parties were severely restricted and key posts divided up on a partisan basis.
The pact also means Aleman, as former president, becomes a member of the country's congress _ with legal immunity from prosecution.
The new president's first task will be to tackle economic troubles in a country with a per capita income of about $430 a year. Millions live on about a dollar a day.
Aleman's government has increased foreign investment, but it remains saddled with a $4 billion foreign debt and is unlikely to meet financial targets agreed upon with the International Monetary Fund as a condition for more debt relief.
Slumping world markets, a slowing global economy and the terror attacks against the United States have hurt Nicaragua's top income sources: coffee, tourism, assembly plants and remittances from Nicaraguans abroad.