Nicaragua’s Ortega wins fourth term in election slammed as ‘pantomime’

Daniel Ortega won a fourth consecutive presidential term Monday in elections denounced by the US as a "sham", with the long-term Nicaraguan leader deriding his opponents – most of them jailed or in exile – as "terrorists".

File photo of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo.
File photo of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo. © Alfredo Zuniga, AP

Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council said that with nearly all the ballots counted, a preliminary tally had Ortega's Sandinista alliance winning with about 76% of votes.

With seven would-be presidential challengers detained since June, Ortega was assured a fourth consecutive five-year term – his fifth overall. 

The five contenders he did face were dismissed by critics as regime loyalists. 

Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, are both in their 70s but have shown no desire to relinquish their vice-like grip on power.

Sunday's election has been widely criticised as neither free nor fair, with US President Joe Biden accusing the Nicaraguan first couple of overseeing a "pantomime" vote.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his country was ready to use a range of tools, including possible sanctions, visa restrictions and coordinated actions against those it said were complicit in supporting the Nicaragua government's "undemocratic acts".

A statement by all 27 European Union members accused Ortega of "systematic incarceration, harassment and intimidation" of opponents, journalists and activists.

The elections "complete the conversion of Nicaragua into an autocratic regime", the EU said. Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Spain and Britain called for detained opposition leaders to be freed.

In a speech that lasted more than an hour on Monday evening, Ortega fired back against the United States and Europe, labeling them "Yankee imperialists."

"They wanted to be at the head of the Supreme Electoral Council ... counting the votes of the Nicaraguans," Ortega said, addressing supporters from Revolution Square in Managua. "That won't happen again in Nicaragua. Never again, never again."

Since May, Ortega's police have imprisoned dozens of leading opposition figures, including seven presidential hopefuls, business leaders, journalists and even some of his old rebel allies.

The election took place without international observers and with most foreign media denied access to the country

'You can't talk, You can't move'

Nicaragua's embattled opposition said the vote was marked by mass abstention even as the government claimed a turnout of 65 percent.

Fear vied with apathy among the 4.4 million Nicaraguans eligible to cast votes in the country of 6.5 million.

"No one from my family went to vote. This was a mockery for Nicaraguans," said a 49-year-old woman who runs a grocery store.

Like many others, she was too scared to give her name.

Short lines of voters wearing face masks could be seen at some of the 13,459 polling stations, but many were empty when AFP visited.

At one of them, Pablo de Jesus Rodríguez, a 26-year-old carpenter and bricklayer, told AFP: "The president has done good things for our country," as he cast his vote.

There were protests Sunday in Costa Rica, Spain, the US and Guatemala, countries that are home to thousands of Nicaraguan exiles.

In neighbouring Costa Rica, where tens of thousands of Nicaraguan exiles have fled in recent years, about 2,000 anti-Ortega demonstrators marched along a main thoroughfare in downtown San Jose on Sunday, chanting, "Long live a free Nicaragua" as festive marimba music blared from speakers.

"I didn't want to leave my country," said protester Marcela Guevara, 48, an activist with Nicaragua's Blue and White National Unity party, a major opposition coalition that called for a boycott of the election.

"But you can't talk, you can't move, you can't associate with groups of your choice," she said, adding she also cannot imagine returning anytime soon.

'We have a dictator'

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro – his own 2018 re-election not recognised by most of the international community – has congratulated Ortega on his victory.

Ortega, 75, first seized control after his Sandinista guerrillas ousted the Somoza family dynasty that held power in Nicaragua from 1937 to 1979.

Now, critics accuse him of authoritarianism, corruption and turning Nicaraguan politics into a family affair.

"In the end we have a dictator in Ortega, a caudillo (strongman) ... he hasn't allowed any other candidates in his party and now, it seems, he won't allow a president in Nicaragua that isn't him," Fabian Medina, the author of a biography on Ortega, told AFP.

Ortega headed a left-wing Sandinista junta with the support of Cuba and the Soviet Union after the revolution, and was elected president in 1985.

But with the economy in ruins, he lost the following election in 1990.

With his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party in opposition, he spent the next 17 years "ruling from below" – fomenting violent protests and negotiating reforms with the government before his 2007 presidential comeback.

Backed by the deep oil funds of Venezuela, then under his ideological ally Hugo Chavez, he started social programs for the poor, many of whom continue to support him.

But he was also careful to nurture ties with Nicaragua's powerful business families by promising stability.

In 2014, his party in congress engineered a constitutional amendment scrapping presidential term limits, opening the way for him to remain president for life.

Ortega's shrewd politics, combined with his skill for ruthlessly cornering opponents, have allowed him to retain control of the FSLN, which he joined in 1963.

The US and Europe have imposed sanctions against the Ortega family members and allies.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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