MANAGUA, (Reuters) – Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega powered toward his third consecutive term as president of the poor Central American country yesterday, as voters cheered years of solid growth and overlooked criticisms he is installing a family dynasty.
By fusing his militant past with a more business-friendly approach, Ortega stands in stark contrast to many once-dominant Latin American leaders, whose popularity has plummeted in recent years after failing to guarantee gains in economic prosperity.
The 70-year-old former guerilla fighter, who is running with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice president, had 72.1 percent of votes, with 66.3 percent of polling stations counted, the electoral board said.
The announcement sent hundreds of his leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party supporters out into the streets of Managua to celebrate.
Ortega’s main opponent, the center-right Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) candidate Maximino Rodriguez, was a distant second with 14.2 percent of votes, the board said.
“I’m euphoric, thanking God for this opportunity, this triumph, so the people continue to reap benefits,” said Ana Luisa Baez, 55, a widow and mother of four who runs a small store out of her home.
“Thanks to the (Sandinista) revolution, I have faith I’ll be able to keep moving forward, because we are backed by a good government,” she added, as car horns honked and motorcycle riders wove through Managua’s Plaza de las Victorias waving red and black Sandinista flags.
Girls in sequined mini-skirts danced to Latino pop music on a stage in the square in celebration.
Speaking after casting his vote on Sunday evening, Ortega, a one-time foe of the United States government, couldn’t resist taking a potshot at Nicaragua’s northern neighbor just days before U.S. voters decide on their next leader.
“Now it’s us, the Nicaraguans, who decide, because we no longer have a single Yankee general here,” Ortega said, referring to years of U.S. interference in the country’s affairs.
“It’s we Nicaraguans who count the votes, this is a sovereign democracy.”
Emerging as leader of the Sandinista movement that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, Ortega led the country during the 1980s, when a civil war against U.S.-backed Contra rebels killed some 30,000 people and unleashed an economic crisis.
After losing the 1990 election, Ortega threatened to fade into history, but the former fighter managed to orchestrate a return to power when he became president in the 2006 election.
Opponents have accused Ortega of trying to set up a “family dictatorship” since he appointed relatives to key posts, and after his Sandinistas pushed constitutional changes through Congress that ended presidential term limits in 2014.
The opposition views Murillo’s vice presidential bid as further evidence of Ortega’s power grab, particularly given that rumors have long swirled over his supposed health problems.
“Ortega gets his way and he doesn’t care if he violates the rights of others,” said Maximino Rodriguez, candidate of the center-right Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), Ortega’s closest rival, polling at 8 percent support.
“Supposedly he fought against the Somoza dictatorship, and the Sandinistas themselves regard Ortega as worse than Somoza,” he added, arguing Ortega was trying to cling to power.
PATH TO AUTOCRACY?
Hernan Selva, a 22-year-old engineering student and Ortega supporter, dismissed as “the kicks of a drowning man” the complaints by Rodriguez, who fought the Sandinistas in the 1980s as part of the right-wing paramilitary Contras.
Despite the United States and international organizations having voiced concern about Ortega’s stranglehold on power, the World Bank acknowledges that poverty has fallen almost 13 percentage points under his rule.
A substantial part of those gains have been funded by Venezuelan petrodollars that have underpinned social programs, helped private business and slashed energy costs.
Ortega has also forged alliances with the business sector, helping Nicaragua to achieve average growth rates of 5 percent in the past five years.
Despite some ups and downs, Ortega and U.S. President Barack Obama have maintained a relatively cordial relationship, demonstrating Ortega’s shift from a leftist firebrand to a diplomat who maintains ties with a Cold War enemy.
But democracy remains a touchy subject.
A U.S. bill known as the Nica Act seeks to condition financial assistance to Nicaragua on improvements in democracy, human rights and battling anti-corruption, leading Ortega’s government to decry “interference” from Washington in September.