Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega took a massive early lead in the Central American nation’s presidential election on Sunday, as voters applauded years of solid growth and overlooked the opposition’s criticisms that he is installing a family dynasty.
Ortega had 71.3 percent of votes, with 21.3 percent of polling stations counted, the electoral board said. Ortega’s main opponent, the centre-right Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) candidate Maximino Rodriguez, was a distant second with 16.4 percent of votes.
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.
By fusing his militant past with a more business-friendly approach, Ortega stands in stark contrast to many once-dominant Latin American leaders, whose popularity has plummeted in recent years after failing to guarantee gains in economic prosperity.
“He is the best thing we have in Nicaragua, because he has governed the best,” said 37-year-old Arlin Lopez, a guard at a bank in Managua who voted for Ortega. “He has been concerned for economic stability and jobs in Nicaragua.”
Ortega, 70, went to vote in Managua just before the polls closed, driving his wife Rosario Murillo to the voting station in a Mercedes jeep, where they were met by supporters amid a heavy security presence.
“This is a vote for peace, for stability, for the security of Nicaraguan families,” Ortega said, wearing a red shirt and a cream-coloured jacket. “Some say that we don’t have proper elections here, because we’re not insulting each other, throwing messages of hate, banging the drums of death.”
Murillo is his vice-presidential candidate.
‘Family dictatorship’ accusations
Emerging as leader of the Sandinista movement that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, Ortega led the country during the 1980s, when a civil war against U.S.-backed Contra rebels killed some 30,000 people and unleashed an economic crisis.
After losing the 1990 election, Ortega threatened to fade into history, but the former fighter managed to orchestrate a return to power when he became president in the 2006 election.
Opponents have accused Ortega, a former enemy of the United States, of trying to set up a “family dictatorship” since he appointed relatives to key posts, and after his Sandinistas pushed constitutional changes through Congress that ended presidential term limits in 2014. The opposition views Murillo’s vice-presidential bid as further evidence of Ortega’s power grab, particularly given that rumours have long swirled over his supposed health problems.
“Ortega gets his way and he doesn’t care if he violates the rights of others,” said Rodriguez, Ortega’s closest rival, polling at eight per cent support. “Supposedly he fought against the Somoza dictatorship, and the Sandinistas themselves regard Ortega as worse than Somoza,” he added, arguing Ortega was trying to cling to power.
The Sandinistas have defended the decision to place Murillo on the ticket, citing her work ethic and the importance of promoting women to top jobs.
Ortega will be facing an increasingly difficult regional landscape in his new term. Leftist ally Venezuela is overwhelmed by an economic crisis and Cuba is normalizing relations with the U.S. The U.S. Congress is working on legislation to require the U.S. government to oppose loans to Nicaragua from international lending institutions.
“The lack of Venezuelan support, the international price of oil, the price of our exports and the possibility that [U.S. 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.