Nicaraguan president and one-time Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega was re-elected in a landslide, according to results released today, overcoming a constitutional limit on re-election and reports of voting problems.
Mr Ortega had 63% support compared with 31% for his nearest challenger, Fabio Gadea, with 86% of the votes counted. Former president Arnoldo Aleman was a distant third with 6%.
The 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.
Mr Gadea, election observers and oppositions groups raised questions about the validity of the vote, as did the United States.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated 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,” she 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 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 Organisation 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 Mr Ortega on 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 the Gadea campaign, said 20% 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,” Mr Gadea said in a news conference.
Mr Aleman’s Liberal Constitutionalist Party said it would not recognise the results or Mr Ortega’s presidency, and said his overwhelming support was either a result of fraud or low turnout.
But it was Mr Ortega’s pact with the conservative former president in 2000 that helped consolidate his 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 US dollars in development aid.
Mr Ortega has yet to acknowledge victory, although he has 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 dollars 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 Mr Ortega has boosted his popularity in Central America’s poorest country with a combination of populism and support for the free-market economy he once opposed.
His opponents feared that if Mr Ortega won with a clear majority, he would be able to change the constitution to legitimise the Supreme Court ruling and pave the way to becoming president for life.
He has dismissed such charges as scare tactics, and said the results would indicate Nicaraguans are now voting “without fear”.
Mr Ortega led the Sandinista movement that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, and withstood a concerted effort by the US government, which viewed him as a Soviet-backed threat, to oust him through the Contra rebel force.
The fiery, moustachioed 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 taking more than 40% of the vote.