Nicaragua votes Sunday in discredited presidential elections stacked in favor of a fourth consecutive term for President Daniel Ortega — his fifth overall — with all viable challengers locked up or in exile.
Just over three years after massive protests against his rule and a violent crackdown that claimed over 300 lives, the 75-year-old is assured another five-year term with his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, 70, by his side.
The international community has already poured scorn on the vote that will take place in Central America’s poorest country without international observers and with most foreign media denied access to the country.
After 14 uninterrupted years in power, the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) faces five challengers, though in name only.
They are all from right-wing parties, little known, and derided as Ortega collaborators.
Seven people with any real shot at the presidency are among 39 opposition figures detained in a brutal government clampdown that started in June.
Amid the suppression, fear vies with apathy among the country of 6.5 million people’s 4.3 million eligible voters. Voting is not mandatory.
“There is no-one to vote for. Daniel (Ortega) has it in the bag, a woman of 46 told AFP at her home in Masaya, 35 km (20 miles) south of the capital Managua.
She asked not to be named. “One cannot talk. You’ll go to jail,” she said.
– All sewn up –
A firebrand Marxist in his youth, Ortega ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, after the guerrilla ousting of US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
Returning to power in 2007, he has won re-election three times, becoming increasingly authoritarian and quashing presidential term limits.
Two-thirds of respondents in a recent Cid-Gallup poll said they would have voted for an opposition candidate on Sunday.
The favorite was Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro who is the only person to have beaten Ortega in an election, in 1990.
But Chamorro is under house arrest and six other presidential hopefuls are behind bars in conditions their family members say amounts to torture.
The seven are accused of unspecified attacks on Nicaragua’s “sovereignty” under a law passed by a parliament dominated by Ortega allies, who also control the judicial and electoral branches.
Election authorities have banned the country’s main opposition alliance, Citizens for Freedom, from contesting Sunday’s vote, just like in 2016 when Ortega won unopposed.
Three political parties and dozens of civic organizations are prohibited.
– ‘A complete sham’ –
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, this week branded Ortega a “dictator” staging “fake” elections, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the process had no credibility.
Rights groups have also denounced the lack of democracy and on Friday, a grouping of Nicaraguan and international NGOs urged the United Nations to investigate “gross human rights violations” under Ortega’s rule.
“These elections are a complete sham,” said the group calling itself Colectivo 46/2.
“Ortega will continue in power… and the repression against those who defend human rights and think differently to the regime will likely worsen,” it added.
Apart from about 150 political opponents known to be behind bars, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans, are in exile to avoid arrest — mainly in Costa Rica, Miami and Madrid.
– ‘Criminals’ –
For Ortega — whose main allies are Venezuela, Cuba and Russia — his jailed critics are not political prisoners but “criminals” seeking to overthrow him with US backing.
The wave of arrests has further soured ties with the United States and European Union who have imposed sanctions against Ortega family members and allies.
On Wednesday, the US Congress approved a law to ramp up the punitive measures.
But rather than force Ortega’s hand, Nicaraguan political scientist Elvira Cuadra — herself in exile — told AFP she feared increasing international isolation would only aggravate economic and social deterioration and fuel already massive migration.
In the United States, Europe and other Latin American countries, opponents of the Ortega regime are planning protests for Sunday and agitating for a boycott of the vote.
In Nicaragua itself, gatherings of more than 200 people are banned, ostensibly as a coronavirus prevention measure.
More than 30,000 police and military have been deployed to guard 3,000 polling stations that are due to open at 13H00 GMT (7.00 am) and close eleven hours later.
The results, predictable as they are, are expected the same day.