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Friday 9 December 2016

Nicaragua's Ortega - and wife - win contentious election

Published 07/11/2016 | 05:56

Nicaragua's president Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo hail supporters after casting their ballots (AP)
Nicaragua's president Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo hail supporters after casting their ballots (AP)

Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega has been re-elected, setting the stage for his third consecutive term - but this time accompanied by his wife as vice president.

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Supreme Electoral Council president Roberto Rivas, said Mr Ortega had more than 71% of the votes with about a fifth of the ballots counted.

Mr Ortega, who ran with his wife Rosario Murillo as his vice presidential candidate, faced five other lesser-known candidates in an election that critics of the government had called unfairly tilted against the opposition.

Emerging with her husband after casting their ballots shortly before the polls closed, Ms Murillo called the vote "an exemplary, historic election".

Ninety-two congressional seats were also contested on Sunday.

Mr Rivas said 65% of Nicaragua's 3.8 million registered voters participated in the election. But the opposition, which had urged people to boycott the election, disputed that, contending turnout was low.

But opponents condemned the election as a farce, with the main opposition movement, the Broad Front for Democracy, saying its checks indicated that more than 70% of voters did not cast ballots.

Mr Ortega and his leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front have benefited from the Central American country's steady economic growth and low levels of violence compared with neighbouring Honduras and El Salvador. Many Nicaraguans also cite the first lady's social programmes as a major reason for the governing party's popularity.

But critics accused Mr Ortega and his allies of manipulating the political system to guarantee he stayed in power for a new five-year term by dominating all branches of government, allowing indefinite presidential re-election and delegitimising the only opposition force seen as capable of challenging him. They said he wanted to form a political dynasty together with his wife.

"I don't think it's worth voting and wasting time, because it's already fixed," said Glenda Bendana, an appliance sales executive in a Managua shopping mall.

"Here they have taken away not our right to vote, but to choose. Ortega wants to die in power and leave his wife to take his place."

Eva Duarte Castillo, did not say how she voted but declared: "I came to vote because it is not only my right as a citizen, it is also my duty. It is a responsibility and I exercised it. I'm happy."

In July, the Supreme Electoral Council effectively decimated the opposition by ousting almost all its members from congress - 28 active and alternate legislators from the Liberal Independent Party and the allied Sandinista Renovation Movement - for refusing to recognise Pedro Reyes as their leader.

Mr Reyes was named head of the opposition by the Supreme Court but is seen by many as a tool of Mr Ortega. The ousted legislators supported former opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre.

The most powerful opposition forces moved to the sidelines of the nation's politics, urging Nicaraguans to boycott the election, which they called a "farce."

Many Nicaraguans, including political analyst Carlos Tunnerman, believed the five other presidential candidates were not true opponents, but were placed on the ballot to make it seem that Ortega had legitimate competition.

"The only thing they are looking to do is play along with Ortega, permitting him to get additional small bits of power in the National Assembly," Mr Tunnerman said.

Candidate Maximino Rodriguez of the Liberal Constitutional Party rejected that idea, saying: "I only collaborate with the Nicaraguan people."

Mr Ortega, who helped topple the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza as a Sandinista guerrilla leader, ruled Nicaragua in 1979-1990. After losing power in a shock electoral defeat, he later returned to the presidency through the ballot box in 2007.

Re-election leaves him in power but facing an increasingly difficult regional landscape.

Leftist ally Venezuela is overwhelmed by an economic crisis and Cuba is normalising relations with the US.

The US House of Representatives has moved to punish Nicaragua since the opposition was gutted, passing a bill to require the United States to oppose loans to Nicaragua from international lending institutions unless the country takes "effective steps to hold free, fair and transparent elections". A companion bill was introduced in the US Senate.

"The lack of Venezuelan support, the international price of oil, the price of our exports and the possibility that (US legislation passes) makes it a more complicated outlook for the Ortega in the next term," said Oscar Rene Vargas, a sociologist and economist at Central American University.

AP

Press Association

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