DAINA BETH SOLOMON
NICARAGUA’s President Daniel Ortega has secured a fourth term in office by a landslide, according to early results of an election that critics said the former guerrilla fighter rigged by suppressing his political rivals.
Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council said that with roughly half the ballots counted, a preliminary tally gave Ortega’s Sandinista alliance about 75% of votes in the presidential election.
Western and many Latin American nations criticized Sunday’s contest in advance after Ortega detained opponents and business leaders, cancelled rival parties and criminalized dissent over the course of months.
U.S. President Joe Biden, in a statement issued before the tally was announced, said Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, had orchestrated a “pantomime election that was neither free nor fair.”
A former Marxist rebel who helped topple the right-wing Somoza family dictatorship in the late 1970s, Ortega says he is defending Nicaragua against unscrupulous adversaries bent on ousting him with the aid of foreign powers. His government has passed a series of laws that make it easy to prosecute opponents for crimes such as “betraying the homeland.”
Ortega is the longest-serving leader in the Americas, and U.S. officials are considering new sanctions against his government, and a review of Nicaragua’s role in a key regional trade pact.
Biden called on Ortega to restore democracy and release detained opposition leaders. Until that happened, the United States would use all available “diplomatic and economic tools” to hold the Ortega administration to account, he said.
Just five little-known candidates of mostly small parties allied to Ortega’s Sandinistas ran against him on the ballot.
“Most people I know decided not to vote, they say it’s madness,” said Naomi, an opponent of the government from the eastern port of Bluefields, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals.
“What they’re doing here is a joke.”
The Supreme Electoral Council said turnout was 65%.
In the 1980s, Ortega served a single term as president before being voted out. He returned to the top job in 2007.
On Sunday afternoon, Ortega hailed the latest election as a victory delivered by the “immense majority of Nicaraguans”, and lashed out at domestic opponents, calling them “demons.”
Thousands of Nicaraguans have fled since a 2018 crackdown on anti-government protests in which more than 300 people were killed. Many of them gathered in neighboring Costa Rica on Sunday in a show of defiance against Ortega.
Prolonged discontent is expected to fuel more emigration to Costa Rica and the United States, where record numbers of Nicaraguans have been apprehended at the border this year.
International observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States were not allowed to participate in the election, and journalists have been barred from entering the country.