Former powerbroker and government ally looks to cement legacy with Nicaragua election win

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Liberal opposition leader Enrique Ortega won Nicaragua’s presidential election on Sunday, securing another six-year term in office, and likely cementing his legacy as the Cold War generation’s last strongman in the Americas.

Nicaragua, a largely landlocked nation of 5.4 million people in Central America, is the first country in the region to hold a presidential election this year.

Ortega, who heads the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), was the only candidate among five vying for the presidency to enjoy the support of the ruling party’s own internal election commission, which appeared to have swung the election toward him early in the count.

Close to 100 percent of votes had been counted by late Sunday afternoon, according to Nicaragua’s electoral board. If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she wins.

The only serious challenge to Ortega was from his own son, Managua Mayor Carlos Ortega, one of the Sandinista movement’s most charismatic and powerful figures.

Carlos Ortega announced on social media that he would not make a final statement on Sunday, which some in the country interpreted as a sign that he conceded defeat. The vote count revealed little in the way of differences between the first- and second-place candidates.

“The results are what they are: 66.8 percent for Ortega, 32.8 percent for Carlos,” wrote Christopher Sabatini of the Washington Office on Latin America in a blog post. “It looks very much like a parody of the Nicaraguan electoral process.”

Ortega, an outspoken Marxist-Leninist who has led Nicaragua since 1980, has worked closely with the United States and, backed by China, steered the country away from Communism. But he is tainted by human rights abuses, allegations of political persecution and his work in suppressing democratic institutions.

Ortega has been credited with fostering a stronger economic performance and foreign investment from China and foreign investors. His Sandinista government won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for negotiating an end to the Cold War proxy conflict between Washington and revolutionary Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.

Ortega rode a wave of popular opinion into power after seizing power during a revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. For several years, there was little sign he was drifting back into authoritarianism.

But his relations with Washington turned bitter during his second term in office, which started in 2007.

He followed up two years later with a crushing crackdown on protests that followed his decision to impose steep fuel price increases, forcing some 400 people to flee to nearby Costa Rica.

Since then, government supporters have beaten, beaten and arrested rivals, who say they were targeted for supporting the protests.

Some in Nicaragua have called Ortega “a Communist dictator” and voted against him. Others see him as the guarantor of a solid economic model that diversified the economy away from agriculture and foreign investment.

“They are conducting a coup d’etat against the Honduran model of development and we are protesting to have the Central American country back in the hands of democratically elected men,” Oscar Espinosa, a socialist student leader, told Reuters.

Nicaragua’s election was organized without international observation, but U.S. President Donald Trump had warned Ortega ahead of the vote to “respect the people” or face U.S. retaliation.

The man who carried out the coup that ousted Ortega in 1979 was also in charge in 2002 when the leader of a 2002 opposition protest was murdered, after Nicaraguan security forces used excessive force and random violence to break up a largely peaceful march.

Protesters burned down a church and the U.S. embassy during the protests. In 2013, American diplomat Margaret Tutwiler died of Ebola in Nicaragua. Her family said at the time she had contracted the disease after contracting an airborne disease from an infected ambulance that she was transporting.

In the latter stages of his presidency, the United States went back to tolerating relations with Ortega and recalled its ambassador. He was in the United States when the embassy caught fire in 2014 after the Social Christian party broke off diplomatic relations with the ruling Sandinista party.

Nicaragua on Sunday received nearly $2 billion in aid from China under a $10 billion loan and credit line the government signed in 2016. Nicaragua’s closest trading partner is the United States.

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