Nicaragua votes, with a jailed opposition and Ortega's re-election all but certain

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Under ring-of-steel security, Nicaraguans voted Sunday in presidential elections dismissed as a "sham" by the international community, with all viable challengers to long-term leader Daniel Ortega locked up or in exile.

About 4.3 million Nicaraguans are eligible to cast votes in one of 13,459 ballot boxes placed throughout the impoverished Central American country, with polling stations closely guarded by 30,000 police and military personnel.

Just over three years after massive protests against his rule and a violent crackdown that claimed more than 300 lives, Ortega, who turns 76 on Thursday, is assured another five-year term with his wife and vice president Rosario Murillo by his side.

US President Joe Biden on Sunday slammed Nicaragua's presidential election as a "sham".

"What Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, orchestrated today was a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic," Biden said in a White House statement on "Nicaragua's sham elections."

Seven people who had any real shot at the presidency are among 39 opposition figures detained in a brutal government clampdown that started in June.

Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), faces five opponents, though in name only -- all are derided as regime collaborators.

The country's opposition in exile has called for a boycott of the election, and for many frustrated citizens the question is not which candidate to choose, but whether to even participate in the process.

"There is no one to vote for. This is an electoral circus," a 51-year-old secretary who did not provide her name told AFP.

"If they are so sure that the people love them, why did they throw the presidential aspirants in jail?"

Amid the suppression, fear is vying with apathy among Nicaragua's voters, 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.

Small lines formed at some voting centers, as FSLN organizers went house to house in a get-out-the-vote operation.

The vote takes place without international observers and with most foreign media denied access to the country.

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.

'No one to vote for'

With Ortega preparing to claim a fourth consecutive term -- his fifth overall -- the United States described Nicaragua as a "cautionary tale" with a regime "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," Patrick Ventrell, the US State Department's Central American Affairs director, said Thursday.

"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 reelection 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 families say amount to torture.

The 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 judicial and electoral branches.

Election authorities have banned the country's main opposition alliance, Citizens for Freedom, from contesting Sunday's vote.


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.

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 worsened ties with Washington and the European Union, both of which have imposed sanctions against Ortega family members and allies.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has branded Ortega a "dictator" staging "fake" elections, and on Wednesday the US Congress approved a law to ramp up punitive measures.

Ortega's foreign minister Denis Moncada issued a not-so-veiled return swipe.

"We Nicaraguans are patriots and we are not going to be intimidated by their threats, by their sanctions, and by threats to ignore the elections," Moncada said after voting in Managua.

"No empire, no power will threaten and intimidate us."


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