By Diego Oré and Daina Beth Solomon
Nov 7 (Reuters) – Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was preparing to win a fourth consecutive term on Sunday after elections widely questioned by the international community and which represent a setback to the drive, led by the United States, to promote democracy in a region from where more and more migrants are heading north.
After arresting nearly 40 opponents, including seven presidential hopefuls, Ortega paved the way to extend his government until at least January 2027, a record in America.
Five candidates competed against Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo. However, analysts and opponents considered that they lent themselves to an electoral “farce”. The same happened with the Congress – controlled by the ruling party – which was also renewed.
Election day, for which almost 4.5 million Nicaraguans were called to vote, ended around 6:00 p.m. local time (0000 GMT on Monday) and the first results were expected a few hours later.
Reuters witnesses witnessed lines of citizens to vote. However, opposition groups – which called for abstention – shared images of empty streets and voting centers on social media.
“What Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, orchestrated today was a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and certainly not democratic,” US President Joe Biden said, quoted in a statement from the White House.
The president urged the government of Ortega and Murillo to “take immediate measures” to restore democracy in Nicaragua and free those “unjustly imprisoned.”
“Until then, the United States, in close coordination with other members of the international community, will use all the diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal to support the people of Nicaragua and hold the Ortega-Murillo government and those who facilitate its abuses accountable,” he added. .
Days ago, Washington – Managua’s largest trading partner – said it began a review of the country’s participation in a free trade agreement with Central America (DR-CAFTA).
Ortega, who has justified the wave of arrests by assuring that those apprehended seek to “overthrow” him, assured in June that the sanctions would not defeat him and analysts believe that, despite isolating the country even more, they would not result in a change of government, such as Nor has it happened in Cuba and Venezuela, where the West has imposed similar punishments.
“These elections (…) are, thank God, a commitment by the vast majority of Nicaraguans to vote for peace and not for war, not for terrorism,” declared the 75-year-old president on Sunday in a public act, minutes after casting your vote.
In the last hours, the two largest opposition groups – the Civic Alliance and the Blue and White National Unity – denounced “harassment, surveillance, threats” and arrests of some of their leaders.
In San José, some 2,000 Nicaraguans protested against what they considered a “rigged” election. In other cities in America and Europe, many others also made their voices heard.
“We are here remembering that Ortega and his people stole the elections, but not the country. Here is Nicaragua showing itself alive,” said Douglas Montoya, a 19-year-old who fled Nicaragua in 2018 because, he said, he was threatened with death by support protests against the government.
The anti-government protests of April 2018 and the subsequent coronavirus pandemic hit the Nicaraguan economy hard and also put pressure on migration to Costa Rica and the north.
Between 2018 and 2020, the real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the largest country in Central America fell by an accumulated 8.8%. Between 2000 and 2017, GDP averaged a 3.9% rise, boosted by remittances and foreign direct investment.
The number of Nicaraguans detained on the southern border of the United States has increased dramatically this year, from 575 in January to 13,391 in July, according to official figures.
Since the 2016 general election, Ortega abolished presidential term limits, expanded his family’s business empire, and piled up pressure on the independent press. In recent months, he has jailed opposition candidates, activists, journalists and business leaders, while others have been forced into exile.
Murillo, 70, is the first in the line of succession to end Ortega’s term if the commander is impeded. In recent years, various rumors have circulated among opponents and diplomats that the leader suffers from a chronic illness.
Since she took office as vice president in 2017, Murillo has been grabbing more power and today she is the exclusive spokesperson for the Government.
“After November 7 (…) the objective (of the presidential couple) will become more related to ensuring a certain type of governance of the mandate for the next few years,” said Tiziano Breda, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Breda believes that, if they win, the tandem will negotiate with business sectors to reactivate the economy, seeking a stabilizing effect for their administration and normalizing society. Already in 2009, Ortega agreed on an atmosphere of coexistence with the main business associations in the country.
(Written by Diego Oré; Additional reporting by Daina Beth Solomon and Álvaro Murillo in San José; Edited by Rodrigo Charme and Javier Leira)