Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega will seek a fourth consecutive term in elections that have been widely condemned by rights groups and international observers.
Ortega, whose Sandinista Front party and allies control the congress and government institutions, will face a field of little-known candidates on Sunday, while opposition figures who represented the most significant challenge to the former revolutionary leader’s rule remain in prison.
The election will determine who holds the presidency for the next five years, as well as 90 of the 92 seats in the country’s congress and Nicaragua’s representation in the Central American Parliament.
The opposition has called on Nicaraguans to stay home in protest of what they say is a tainted electoral process. Ortega, meanwhile, has seized on international criticism to further foment nationalist sentiment.
As a young revolutionary, Ortega helped to overthrow the anti-communist strongman Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He first served as president from 1985 to 1990, before returning to power in 2007.
But critics say Ortega’s rule has come to resemble the government he resisted. That was particularly on display amid anti-government protests in 2018, which saw a violent crackdown by security forces and pro-government armed groups. More than 300 people were killed during the unrest, with Ortega decrying the demonstrators as “terrorists”.
Ortega recently declared his wife, First Lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo, “co-president”.
In June, police arrested seven potential presidential challengers on what rights groups call trumped-up charges including undermining “national integrity”, working with foreign governments and money laundering. They remained in detention on election day. Some two dozen other opposition leaders were also detained ahead of the elections.
With little doubt as to the presidential election result, the focus is already turning to what the international response will be as Ortega seeks to tighten his grip on power.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions against those in Ortega’s inner circle, but Ortega responded only by arresting more of his opponents.
On Friday, a senior US State Department official, who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the US government was willing to consider additional targeted sanctions but had tried to avoid measures that would more broadly impact the Nicaraguan people.
“It is very hard when you have a government that has very minimal goals that include remaining in power at any cost and disregarding the will of their own citizens or the needs of the citizens to retain that power,” the official said.
The Organization of American States has also condemned Nicaragua’s holding of political prisoners and unwillingness to hold free and fair elections, but Ortega’s government has only railed against foreign interference.
The regional body will hold its annual general assembly in Guatemala later this week. Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico were among seven countries that abstained from a vote on a resolution last month condemning the repression in Nicaragua.
Polls were scheduled to close at 6pm local time (00:00 GMT) and the Supreme Electoral Council said the first partial results would be released around midnight. Provisional vote totals are expected Monday.
Some 30,000 police officers and soldiers were deployed to secure voting sites, according to the government.