By Alonso Soto

MANAGUA (Reuters) - Lesther Aleman, a lanky and bespectacled 20-year-old student, had never taken part in a protest until April when he became the public face of a revolt that has shaken the rule of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

The straight-'A's student won national fame when in a live broadcast he called Ortega a "murderer" for the violent repression of protests that left more than 200 people dead. The crackdown reawakened memories of Nicaragua's decade-long civil war that ended in 1990.

Aleman and another 40 student leaders, some still in their teens, went into hiding after receiving deaths threats. He now forms part of a broad new coalition of students, businessmen, farmers and environmentalists trying to negotiate a return to peace and Ortega's departure from office.

 

The group, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, aims to create a generation of leaders from outside the ruling Sandinista movement and discredited opposition parties.

Ortega, 72, has dominated Nicaraguan politics for decades. After the leftist Sandinistas toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, Ortega led the country until 1990 before returning to power at the ballot box in 2006 for the first of three consecutive terms.

While critics say Ortega has imposed a corrupt, authoritarian regime in the impoverished nation of 6 million people, the Alliance faces a rocky road to defeat him.

The group is led by people with little political experience, many of whom have been at odds in the past or did not know each other until recently. Former Ortega allies say he is seeking to exploit divisions in the coalition to cling to power.

Aleman said the Alliance's leaders know that, while popular anger is rising against Ortega, they must stand together to defeat him and rule.

"At the start we had a lot of doubts and distrusted each other...but now tensions have eased," said Aleman, the son of a trucker. "We know we need to remain united."

CRISIS ALLIANCE

Aleman joined a demonstration on April 18 to protest plans to cut pension benefits that soon snowballed into a nationwide revolt after Ortega supporters clubbed students and pensioners with baseball bats and metal tubes.

Bats gave way to guns in following days with police and masked militias firing at protesters armed with homemade mortar launchers and slings. The violence enraged thousands of Nicaraguans who poured into the streets to demand Ortega's resignation.

Like many, Aleman said he was inspired by the leftist Sandinista revolution, which topped Somoza and resisted the U.S.-backed Contra guerrillas during the following decade.

"I ask you Ortega: where is freedom you promised then?" he asked.

Businessmen and rights groups joined the students and were invited by the Catholic Church to participate in talks with Ortega. His government has branded the protesters "terrorists" and "vandals" in the pay of right-wing forces trying to undermine Nicaragua's hard-won peace.

The repression has hurt Ortega's once widespread popularity and exacerbated tensions in the Sandinista movement. Nearly 70 percent of Nicaraguans think Ortega should resign, a May survey by pollster CID/Gallup showed, while his approval rating has tumbled to just 19 percent from 62 percent as recently as January.

Thousands of people participated in a 24-hour general strike organized by the alliance on June 14, emptying bustling markets.

Though Ortega's term does not end until 2021, mounting deaths and international condemnation have pushed him to discuss early elections next year and an overhaul of the Sandinista-controlled electoral council.

Yet gun-toting pro-Ortega forces in pickup trucks continue to attack protesters defending barricades that have nearly paralyzed the economy of the impoverished country. The on-off peace talks broke down last week amid a new round of violence.

"For Daniel (Ortega) this is a war. He's trying to regain territory and show force to strengthen his position in negotiations," said Oscar Rene Vargas, a co-founder of the Sandinista movement who broke with Ortega in 2007.

"Ortega is betting on divisions within the group to keep his power."

UNEASY UNION

The inclusion of a business lobby with strong ties to Ortega into the alliance caused tensions. For a decade, the lobby helped Ortega run an economic model that drew foreign investment and praise from the International Monetary Fund. 

"It was very odd to sit at the same table with those guys," said Harley Morales, a 26-year-old sociology student helping to craft the alliance's strategy. "In the end, the business lobby understood that they had to break all ties with the regime and adopt a more aggressive position."

Morales said the main challenge is to bridge the differences that remain within the group. They have yet to agree on whether Ortega should leave office immediately or stay until early elections, and whether to pursue more aggressive strategies to force the government to halt the repression, members said.

Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a U.S.-trained economist and head of the FUNIDES think-tank linked to the private sector, said that although the alliance was a "horizontal organization" grouping people from different backgrounds, they all shared a single goal.

"We share a common and clear objective: democratize the country," said the 47-year-old, adding that a first step toward that was overhauling the electoral system to allow the opposition to challenge Ortega fairly.

One of Central America's last remaining leftist leaders, Ortega has increased control over the courts, national assembly and electoral council.

The opposition Liberal Constitutional Party and Liberal Independent Party secured less than 20 percent of the vote in the 2016 election which Ortega won by a landslide amid accusations of vote fraud by opponents.

Backroom deals between some of those parties and Ortega eroded Nicaraguans' confidence in them, analysts and pollsters say.

Yet the progressive accumulation of power by Ortega and his powerful wife, Rosario Murillo, has left them increasingly isolated within the Sandinista movement, analysts say.

The couple pushed aside prominent party figures, many of them former guerrilla leaders, to consolidate their control, weakening their support.

Some in Nicaragua are looking to the lessons of the 1990 election when Ortega was defeated by an alliance led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of a murdered opposition journalist. Her pitch was to end the civil war that claimed more than 30,000 lives.

"The only way they can defeat Ortega is if they stay united as the opposition did in 1990," said Miguel Gomez, a political economy professor with the American University in Managua. "But the alliance doesn't have a plan for the day after."

(Reporting by Alonso Soto; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Lisa Shumaker)

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