By Daina Beth Solomon
SAN JOSÉ, Nov 8 (Reuters) – Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega secured a fourth term in office by an overwhelming majority, according to the first results of an election that critics say was rigged by the ex-guerrilla by taking out from the race to his political rivals.
Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council said that, with about half of the votes counted, a preliminary count gave Ortega’s Sandinista alliance about 75% of the vote in the presidential election.
Both the West and many Latin American nations criticized Sunday’s election in advance, after Ortega detained opponents and business leaders, canceled rival parties and criminalized dissent for months.
In a statement issued before the recount was announced, US President Joe Biden said that Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, had orchestrated a “pantomime of elections that were neither free nor fair.”
Ortega, a former Marxist rebel who helped topple the right-wing dictatorship of the Somoza family in the late 1970s, says he is defending Nicaragua against unscrupulous adversaries bent on overthrowing it with the help of foreign powers. His government has passed a series of laws that facilitate the prosecution of opponents for crimes such as “treason.”
Ortega is America’s longest-serving leader, and US authorities are evaluating 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 happens, the United States will use all available “diplomatic and economic tools” to hold the Ortega administration accountable, he said.
Only five little-known candidates from parties mostly small allies of Ortega’s Sandinistas competed against him in the elections.
The Supreme Electoral Council said that the turnout was 65%.
In the 1980s, Ortega served a single term as president before losing in the elections. He returned to office in 2007.
On Sunday afternoon, Ortega hailed the election as a victory for the “vast majority of Nicaraguans” and lashed out at internal opponents, calling them “demons.”
Thousands of Nicaraguans have fled since the crackdown on anti-government protests in 2018, in which more than 300 people died. Many of them met Sunday in neighboring Costa Rica in a show of defiance against Ortega.
The prolonged discontent is expected to fuel further emigration to Costa Rica and the United States, where a record number of Nicaraguans have been detained at the border this year.
International observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States were not allowed to participate in the elections and journalists were barred from entering the country.
(Additional reporting by Jake Kincaid; edited in Spanish by Carlos Serrano)