Nicaragua's Ortega re-elected in a landslide

November 8, 2011 - 1:00 AM
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) — President and one-time Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega was re-elected in a landslide, according to results released Monday, overcoming a constitutional limit on re-election and reports of voting problems.

Ortega had 63 percent support compared to 31 percent for his nearest challenger, Fabio Gadea, with 86 percent of the votes counted from Sunday's vote. Former President Arnoldo Aleman was a distant third with 6 percent.

The size of Ortega's margin of victory is likely to reduce the impact of reports of irregularities during Sunday's vote.

A domestic group of observers, Let's Have Democracy, said it recorded 600 complaints of voting irregularities, a handful of injuries in protests and 30 arrests.

Gadea, election observers and oppositions groups raised questions about the validity of the vote, as did the United States.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated U.S. concerns over whether the elections were transparent and free of intimidation, violence and harassment.

"There are quite a number of reports, and we're concerned because the conditions weren't good going in," Nuland said. "And frankly, if the Nicaraguan government had nothing to hide, it should have allowed a broad complement of international monitors."

The Ortega government issued strict guidelines for election observers. International teams had to negotiate for more access, and Nicaraguan observers didn't even bother to get credentials.

A team from the European Union said it would issue a report Tuesday after complaints that included a polling place set on fire, election officials obstructing voters from opposing parties and protests by those who didn't receive their voting credentials.

The head of the Organization of American States observer mission, Dante Caputo, initially complained that its observers were been denied access to 10 polling stations, but later said in a statement that the issue was resolved.

OAS General Secretary Jose Miguel Insulza said he talked to Ortega Sunday, saying despite the anticipation of tensions and violence, the election showed "the maturity of the Nicaraguan people and their dedication to peace."

Eliseo Nunez, who headed Gadea's campaign, said 20 percent of his party's representatives had been blocked from overseeing polling places "by paramilitary mobs."

"We can't accept the results because they don't reflect the will of the people, rather the will of the election council," Gadea said in a news conference.

Aleman's Liberal Constitutionalist Party said it would not recognize the results or Ortega's presidency, and said his overwhelming support was either a result of fraud or low turnout.

But it was Ortega's pact with the conservative former president in 2000 that helped consolidate Ortega's power. It ensured that the two parties would dominate Nicaraguan politics, effectively giving the two factions seats on the Supreme Court and the electoral council.

Those bodies overruled a constitutional ban on consecutive re-election or serving more than two terms in all.

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

Ortega had yet to acknowledge a victory Monday, though he had already received congratulations from his leftist allies, Cuban President Raul Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has given the Ortega government more than $500 million a year in donations and discounted oil.

The ruling Sandinista party declared victory and caravans of thousands of supporters flooded the streets shouting "Daniel! Daniel!"

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.

His opponents feared that if Ortega wins with a clear majority, he would be able to change the constitution to legitimize the Supreme Court ruling and pave the way to becoming president for life.

Ortega has dismissed such charges as scare tactics, and said the results would indicate the Nicaraguans are now voting "without fear."

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. He lost again in 1996 and 2001 despite garnering more than 40 percent of the vote.

While 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.