Nicaragua’s presidential election campaign officially kicks off on Saturday with incumbent Daniel Ortega’s main rivals all under arrest.
The 75-year-old, in power since 2007, will be seeking a fourth consecutive term in the November 7 vote despite international condemnation of his government’s detention of 37 opposition figures since June.
Running on the ticket of his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), Ortega has again chosen his wife Rosario Murillo,70, vice president since 2017, as his running mate.
They will be up against candidates from five little-known right-wing parties — the only ones cleared to participate by the government electoral body.
“People know that the electoral process will be anything but transparent and that, to a certain extent, it is pre-ordained that the Sandinista Front will win,” said former Nicaragua diplomat and analyst Edgar Parrales.
Ortega’s government has been accused of political persecution for its rounding up of opposition figures in a series of house and night-time raids since June 2, including seven aspiring presidential candidates.
The charges against them are rooted in a law initiated by Ortega and approved by parliament in December, widely criticized as a means of freezing out challengers and silencing opponents.
The president accuses those arrested of seeking to overthrow him with US backing.
The majority are in jail awaiting trial — in dire conditions according to their loved ones — and a handful under house arrest.
The first person to be detained was Cristiana Chamorro, widely seen as the favorite to beat Ortega but now held on claims of money laundering.
Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Nicaragua’s November election had “lost all credibility” and accused the Ortega regime of “undemocratic, authoritarian actions.”
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and the Organization of American States’ (OAS) human rights arm have urged Nicaragua to release the detainees, but Ortega has refused to budge.
Other than the 37 opposition figures, some 100 other Nicaraguans remain imprisoned for their part in anti-government protests in 2018, which were violently put down by the regime.
Over 300 people were killed in the crackdown, and thousands were forced to flee the country of 6.5 million people, according to observers.
A former leftist guerrilla, Ortega governed Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, when Chamorro’s mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, unseated him to become Latin America’s first elected female president.
He returned to power in 2007, won re-election twice, and has changed all laws that would prevent him from staying in power.
On Thursday, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Chile, the Dominican Republic, United Kingdom and United States issued a joint statement “declaring to Ortega & Murillo that democracies will reject political repression, human rights abuses, and the dismantling of the electoral system.”
The government has announced measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during campaigning, banning meetings of more than 200 people.
Those actions stood in contrast with the government’s earlier refusal to impose a pandemic lockdown and its promotion of tourism and festivities involving large crowds.
“The weird thing is that the FSLN has been holding massive rallies throughout this year… and now they are beginning to say there should be no gatherings,” said Parrales.