Nicaraguan president re-elected despite ‘dictatorship’ claims
Daniel Ortega wins third consecutive term as leader of the Central American nation
A supporter of Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega holds up a flag of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) after elections in Managua, Nicaragua. Photograph: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
Nicaraguan leftist Daniel Ortega powered to his third consecutive term as president of the poor Central American country on Sunday, as voters cheered the years of solid economic growth under his tenure and overlooked criticism he is installing a family dynasty into power.
By fusing his militant past with a more business-friendly approach, Mr Ortega stands in stark contrast to many once-dominant Latin American leaders, whose popularity has plummeted in recent years after they failed to guarantee gains in economic prosperity.
The 70-year-old former guerilla fighter, who ran with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice-president, had 72.1 per cent of the votes, with 66.3 per cent of polling stations counted, the electoral board said.
The announcement sent hundreds of his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party supporters out into the streets of Managua to celebrate.
Mr Ortega’s main opponent, the centre-right Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) candidate Maximino Rodriguez, was a distant second with 14.2 per cent of votes, the board said.
“I’m euphoric, thanking God for this opportunity, this triumph, so the people continue to reap benefits,” said Ana Luisa Baez (55), a widow and mother-of-four who runs a small store out of her home.
“Thanks to the [Sandinista] revolution, I have faith I’ll be able to keep moving forward, because we are backed by a good government,” she added, as car horns honked and motorcycle riders wove through Managua’s Plaza de las Victorias waving red-and-black Sandinista flags.
Speaking after casting his vote on Sunday evening, Mr Ortega, a one-time enemy of the US government, couldn’t resist taking a potshot at Nicaragua’s northern neighbour just days before US voters decide on their next leader.
“Now it’s us, the Nicaraguans, who decide, because we no longer have a single Yankee general here,” Mr Ortega said, referring to years of US interference in the country’s affairs.
“It’s we Nicaraguans who count the votes, this is a sovereign democracy.”
Emerging as the leader of the Sandinista movement that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, Mr Ortega led the country during the 1980s, when a civil war against US-backed Contra rebels killed some 30,000 people and unleashed an economic crisis.
After losing the 1990 election, Mr Ortega risked fading into history, but the former fighter managed to orchestrate a return to power and became president in the 2006 election.
Opponents have accused Mr Ortega of trying to set up a “family dictatorship” after 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 Ms Murillo’s vice-presidential bid as further evidence of Mr 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,” the PLC leader said.
“Supposedly he fought against the Somoza dictatorship, and the Sandinistas themselves regard Ortega as worse than Somoza.”
Hernan Selva, a 22-year-old engineering student and Ortega supporter, dismissed as “the kicks of a drowning man” the complaints by Mr Rodriguez, who fought the Sandinistas in the 1980s as part of the right-wing paramilitary Contras.
Despite the US and international organisations having voiced concern about Mr Ortega’s stranglehold on power, the World Bank acknowledges that poverty has fallen almost 13 percentage points under his rule.
A substantial part of those gains have been funded by Venezuelan petrodollars that have underpinned social programmes, helped private business and slashed energy costs.
Mr Ortega has also forged alliances with the business sector, helping Nicaragua to achieve average growth rates of 5 per cent in the past five years.
Despite some ups and downs, Mr Ortega and US president Barack Obama have maintained a relatively cordial relationship, demonstrating Mr Ortega’s shift from a leftist firebrand to a diplomat who maintains ties with a Cold War enemy.
However, democracy remains a touchy subject.
A US Bill known as the Nica Act seeks to condition financial assistance to Nicaragua on improvements in democracy, human rights and anti-corruption measures, which led Mr Ortega’s government to decry “interference” from Washington in September.