Nicaraguans voted Sunday in presidential elections widely denounced as a “sham,” as long-term leader Daniel Ortega labeled his opponents — most of them jailed or in exile — “demons” who “sow terror.”
Some 30,000 police and soldiers were deployed to monitor the vote, which rights groups said was taking place in a climate of fear, with Ortega having sidelined his challengers.
He is assured a fourth consecutive five-year term, his fifth overall, with his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, 70, by his side.
Ortega, 75, launched a new attack on his opponents Sunday, saying: “This day we are standing up to those who promote terrorism, finance war, to those who sow terror, death.”
He was referring to those who took part in massive protests against his government in 2018, which were met with a violent crackdown that claimed more than 300 lives in Central America’s poorest country.
Some 150 people have been jailed since then, including 39 opposition figures rounded up since June in the run-up to Sunday’s vote. They include seven would-be presidential challengers.
Another roughly 100,000 Nicaraguans have fled into exile.
“They were plotting, they did not want these elections to take place,” Ortega said Sunday.
“They are sowers of death, of hatred, of terror… They are demons who do not want peace.”
Fear vied with apathy among the 4.4 million Nicaraguans eligible to cast votes at 13,459 ballot boxes in the country of 6.5 million.
“There is no one to vote for. This is an electoral circus. If they (the regime) are so sure that the people love them, why did they throw the presidential aspirants in jail?” a 51-year-old secretary told AFP.
Like many others, she was too scared to give her name.
Short lines of voters wearing face masks could be seen at some polling stations, but many were empty.
Members of Ortega’s ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) went from house to house calling voters to the ballot box.
The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh) said Nicaragua was a “police state” using tactics of “fear (and) social control” to “crush the opposition.”
There were protests Sunday in the United States and Costa Rica, home to thousands of Nicaraguan exiles, against the regime of Ortega, who faces five challengers Sunday, but in name only.
“We want that diabolical couple (Ortega and Murillo) to leave the country and democracy to return,” said Marcos Martinez, one of about a thousand demonstrators in the Costa Rican capital San Jose.
In Nicaragua itself, gatherings of more than 200 people are banned, ostensibly as a coronavirus prevention measure.
The opposition in exile has called for a boycott of Sunday’s vote.
But at a polling station in the Larreynaga neighborhood of eastern Managua, voter Carlos Reyes offered a different view.
“I voted because it is a right and because I want the country’s progress to continue,” the 39-year-old said.
The election takes place without international observers and with most foreign media denied access to the country.
Only “election attendants” and journalists from countries the government considers “friendly,” such as Russia, received accreditation.
This week, the United States said Ortega’s regime was “determined to hold on to power at any cost.”
“It will be quite clear that these elections will have no credibility, that they’re a sham,” said Patrick Ventrell, the US State Department’s Central American Affairs director.
“We are going into a scenario where you have a dictatorship, and we’ll have to respond to such.”
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, Ortega has won re-election three times, becoming increasingly authoritarian and quashing presidential term limits.
Jailed opposition figures are accused of unspecified attacks on Nicaragua’s “sovereignty” under a law passed by a parliament dominated by Ortega allies, who also control the judiciary and electoral body.
Election authorities have banned the country’s main opposition alliance, Citizens for Freedom, from contesting Sunday’s vote.
Nicaragua’s last opposition daily, La Prensa, had its director thrown in prison in August, and Facebook announced this week it had closed a government-operated troll farm spreading anti-opposition messages.
Two-thirds of respondents in a recent Cid-Gallup poll said they would have voted for an opposition candidate.
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.
Chamorro is under house arrest and six other presidential hopefuls are jailed in conditions their families say amount to torture.
For Ortega, his jailed critics are “criminals” seeking to overthrow him with US backing.
The wave of arrests has worsened ties with Washington and the European Union, both of which have imposed sanctions against Ortega family members and allies.
Results in Sunday’s vote are expected about six hours after polls close at 6 pm (0000 GMT).