Nicaragua pres Ortega poised to win 3rd term

November 6, 2011 - 10:20 PM
APTOPIX Nicaragua Election

Voters search the electoral rolls for the location of their respective polling table on a wall of Nicaragua's Labor Ministry during general elections in Managua, Nicaragua, Sunday Nov. 6, 2011. Nicaraguan president and one-time Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega appears headed for a third term victory Sunday in an election that his critics say could be the prelude to a presidency for life. The statue in the center is of Nicaraguan revolutionary hero, Augusto C. Sandino, the inspiration for the political ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, FSLN. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Nicaraguans were poised to return one-time Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega to the presidency in Sunday's election even with reports of protests and international observers being blocked from participating.

Polls closed with international election observers reporting problems with access to voting stations and with one national group of observers, Let's Have Democracy, reporting 600 complaints of voting irregularities, a handful of injuries in protests and 30 arrests.

The head of the Organization of American States observer mission, Dante Caputo, said its observers were been denied access to 10 polling stations, which would account for 20 percent of the statistical material they had planned to collect for their analysis.

"They have prevented our people from being there at the precise moment they should have been there and that is not remediable and will affect our ability to do our jobs," Caputo said. "We are navigating without radar."

The European Union said some of its teams also had problems but that they eventually were resolved and they were allowed access, according Luis Yanis, head of the mission.

The Ortega government, meanwhile, reported smooth voting in 90 percent of the country as supporters cheered and declared an Ortega victory before the first results had been reported.

Opposition candidate Fabio Gadea, who went into election day trailing Ortega in the polls by 18 points, thanked voters in a brief press conference for coming out en masse.

"The attempt to discourage voting and create difficulties has failed," said Gadea of the Liberal Independent Party. "No one or nothing will alter the will of the people."

Ortega went into the election with nearly 50 percent support and Gadea 30 percent. Conservative Arnoldo Aleman, a former president and perennial candidate, was a distant third.

Since returning to power in 2007, the 65-year-old Ortega has boosted his popularity in Central America's poorest country with a combination of pork-barrel populism and support for the free-market economy he once opposed.

He seeks a third term — his second consecutive one — after the Sandinista majority on the Supreme Court overruled the term limits set by the Nicaraguan constitution.

His opponents fear that if he wins more than 50 percent of the vote, it will allow him to change the constitution to run in perpetuity.

The independent Let's Have Democracy reported problems in various municipalities located between 50 and 70 miles outside of the capital of Managua. Besides injuries and arrests, observers reported a polling place set on fire, election officials obstructing voters from opposing parties and protests by voters who didn't receive their credentials.

The sporadic incidents didn't seem widespread enough to throw the official results into question. But it was unclear whether the OAS would question the results because of lack of access to polling stations.

Claims of widespread fraud in the 2008 municipal elections led Washington to cancel $62 million in development aid.

Nicaragua's 2006 election drew more than 18,000 observers. This time election observation is much more difficult and local observers were denied credentials. The OAS and the European Union negotiated access to Sunday's vote, but the Georgia-based Carter Center decided not to observe because of the restrictions.

Ortega led the Sandinista movement that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, and withstood a concerted effort by the U.S. government, which viewed him as a Soviet-backed threat, to oust him through a rebel force called the Contras.

The fiery, mustachioed leftist ruled through a junta, then was elected in 1984 but was defeated after one term in 1990. After two more failed runs, he softened his rhetoric, took a free-market stance, and regained the presidency in the 2006 election.

In his most recent term, Ortega has built wide support among the youth and the poor in a country of 5.8 million people, more than 40 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day.

If the left seemed to be rolling in Nicaragua on Sunday, a right-wing former general promising to get tough on rampant crime won presidential elections in the fellow Central American nation of Guatemala.

Otto Perez Molina of the conservative Patriotic Party won 55 percent of the vote, topping tycoon-turned-political populist Manuel Baldizon of the Democratic Freedom Revival party, who had 45 percent.

Perez, 61, is the first former military leader elected president in Guatemala in the 25 years after the end of brutal military rule. While that concerns some international groups, Guatemala has a young population, and many don't remember the war.

Witnesses say hundreds of villages were obliterated by the army's scorched-earth policy. Perez has said there were no massacres or genocide. He has never been charged with any atrocities and was one of the army's chief representatives in negotiating the 1996 peace accords.

Outgoing center-left President Alvaro Colom, who can't run for re-election, urged both sides to respect the results.

More than half of Guatemalans live in poverty in a nation 14 million overrun by organized crime and Mexican drug cartels. The country has one of the highest murder rates in the world, a product of gang and cartel violence, along with the legacy of its 1960-1996 civil war in which the army, police and paramilitary are blamed for killed the vast majority of 200,000 victims — most of whom were Mayan.

Perez's campaigning focused on fighting the street gangs and cartels.