By Diego Oré and Daina Beth Solomon
(Reuters) -Nicaraguans went to the polls Sunday in an election marked by longtime President Daniel Ortega’s ruthless campaign to extend his grip on power by jailing opponents, in a vote critics labeled a farce but the veteran politician described as a call for peace.
Lines of voters formed in the capital Managua at some polling places despite expectations of a low turnout, with some proudly showing off their ink-stained thumbs after casting ballots.
Ortega, a onetime guerrilla who helped depose a right-wing family dictatorship in the late 1970s, is almost certain to get a fourth straight term to prolong his status as the Americas’ longest-serving leader, alongside his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.
Seated next to his wife, Ortega spoke Sunday afternoon to a group of youth in an address broadcast on state television, punctuated by frequent applause.
“They didn’t want us to be able to hold these elections,” he said, referring to his domestic opponents and their foreign backers.
“They are demons who don’t want peace for our people and instead opt for slander and disqualifications. Why? So that Nicaragua is embroiled in violent clashes.”
Voting is set to end at 6:00 p.m. local time (0000 GMT).
In neighboring Costa Rica, where thousands of Nicaraguan exiles have fled in recent years, around 2,000 anti-Ortega protesters marched along a main downtown San Jose thoroughfare.
Chants of “long live a free Nicaragua” rang out as festive marimba music blared from speakers.
“I didn’t want to leave my country,” said protester Marcela Guevara, 48, an activist with Nicaragua’s Blue and White National Unity party, a major opposition coalition that called for a vote boycott.
“But you can’t talk, you can’t move, you can’t associate with groups of your choice,” she added, declaring the rule of law broken.
Ortega first served as president in the 1980s before losing in a 1990 upset, and he returned to the top job again in 2007.
Since May, Ortega’s police have imprisoned nearly 40 leading opposition figures, including seven presidential candidates, as well as prominent business leaders, journalists and even some of his former rebel allies.
Ortega’s only opposition on the ballot comes from five little-known candidates of small allied parties. About 4.5 million Nicaraguans are eligible to vote.
Also up for grabs on Sunday are 92 seats in the unicameral Congress, also firmly controlled by Ortega’s allies.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas head for Human Rights Watch, dismissed the election as a “farce” in posts on Twitter.
He predicted Ortega will extend his rule “by force of repression, censorship and fear,” while calling on other countries to confront his government.
“It’s essential to redouble international pressure to demand the release of political prisoners, and to reestablish democracy in Nicaragua,” he said.
Ortega’s current term took an especially repressive turn in 2018, when he quashed largely peaceful protests by those initially upset over spending cuts, killing more than 300 people and wounding thousands more.
Last year, the ruling party brought in a new law criminalizing dissent, and in recent months foreign journalists have been barred from entering.
One Reuters reporter was turned back by border agents last Friday, while another, a Nicaraguan citizen, was turned away in September.
International observers were allowed into the country only from allies including some Latin American leftist movements, but not critics like the European Union or the Organization of American States (OAS).
In a Sunday post on social media, the Ortega-allied electoral authority celebrated more than 200 “election companions” from 27 countries plus 600 journalists of all nationalities covering the vote, but without providing details.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month deplored the “sham election,” accusing Ortega, 75, and Murillo, 70, of seeking an “authoritarian dynasty.”
Last week, U.S. officials said new sanctions were being considered against the power couple’s government, a sentiment echoed by European Union leaders, in addition to a future review of Nicaragua’s status in the CAFTA regional trade pact.
Ortega was a Cold War-era U.S. antagonist and Marxist rebel who toppled the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, but he has since turned against many who helped him most during the struggle.
While most analysts agree Ortega is likely to prevail in the near term, just as fellow leftist strongmen in Cuba and Venezuela have done in recent years, they also say prolonged unrest could drive new waves of fleeing Nicaraguans.
Many have gone either south to Costa Rica, or sought to reach the U.S. border, pushed by an economic slump prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
Gross domestic product shrank nearly 9% from 2018 to 2020, compared to robust average growth of almost 4% since 2000.
(Reporting by Diego Ore and Daina Beth Solomon; Additional reporting by Alvaro Murillo; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Clarence Fernandez and Chizu Nomiyama)
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