MANAGUA – Former Marxist guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega was on the brink Sunday of keeping his job as Nicaragua’s president for five more years, bolstered by solid support from the country’s rural poor.
Ortega, 65, has presided over economic growth in Central America’s poorest nation with financial aid from his leftist ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and by savvy deals with former foes in the church and business elite.
He also faced a fractured opposition in a vote marred by accusations of irregularities and complaints from international observers.
In pre-election surveys, Ortega had 48 percent support – 18 points higher than his closest rival, 79-year-old conservative radio host Fabio Gadea.
To avoid a run-off, Ortega would need more than 40 percent of the vote, or at least 35 percent and a lead of more than five percentage points. Results were still pending late Sunday night, but Ortega’s re-election has seemed a lock for months.
Ortega said he was confident of a sweeping victory.
“This vote will be very high for the Sandinista Front because it is the first time that there is a vote without fear,” he said after the polls closed.
Tension has risen since a November 2009 Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for Ortega to seek a third term as president. Consecutive re-elections and third terms were supposedly banned.
At least 15 protesters and two policemen were hurt Saturday when supporters of Ortega and Gadea clashed outside the capital Managua.
Ortega, who was first elected president of the nation of almost six million in 1984, has been a central figure in Nicaragua since leading a Marxist guerrilla movement that ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
U.S. president Ronald Reagan accused the Sandinista National Liberation Front of fostering revolutionary movements in the region and Ortega was voted out of power in 1990 after a civil war against U.S.-backed Contra rebels.
But Ortega, who had two unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1996 and 2001, modified his message and crucially reconciled with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, a key figure in the staunchly Roman Catholic nation.
Ortega enjoys solid support in rural and marginalized areas of Nicaragua, where almost half of the population live in poverty. Since 2006, Nicaragua’s economy has enjoyed steady growth and exports have doubled.
Dante Caputo, a former Argentine foreign minister who heads the observer team from the Organization of American States (OAS) regional body, said his staff was blocked from 10 of 52 polling stations, out of some 4,200 altogether, mid-way through voting.
The head of a European Union observer team, Luis Yanez, told reporters that he noted “sometimes inexplicable obstacles” and “cheating in a process that should be free.”
Members of his team, like the OAS observers, faced “difficulties” in monitoring the vote, he said.
Gadea stands on an anti-corruption ticket. Former president Arnoldo Aleman – sentenced to prison in 2003 for massive corruption, only to see the conviction overturned in 2009 – polled a distant third.
With Ortega so comfortably ahead, his four right-wing rivals have focused on Congress, where 90 seats are also up for grabs.
Opponents say that Ortega has received aid from Chavez – estimated at more than $1.6 billion since 2007 – which has propped up popular social programs, including subsidized housing.
Ortega however has attracted foreign investors, who see Nicaragua as a relatively safe haven alongside neighboring Honduras or El Salvador, some of the world’s most violent nations.
Nicaragua maintains a free trade deal with the United States, despite Ortega’s anti-imperialist discourse and links to Washington enemies such as Iran.