San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nicaragua re-elects Ortega, but top rival calls election a ‘fraud’

MANAGUA – Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on Monday won a massive re-election to a third term, in a result immediately rejected by his main rival as “fraud.”

The 65-year-old Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla leader, scored 62.6 percent of the vote, according to results from more than 85 percent of polling stations in Central America’s largest and poorest nation.

“I want to congratulate the president,” Roberto Rivas, head of the electoral council, told media at a news conference.

Ortega’s main rival, liberal radio host Fabio Gadea had 30.9 percent and had no chance to overtake the incumbent, he said.

Shortly before that announcement, Gadea rejected the official results as fraud.

“We can’t accept the results presented by the Supreme Electoral Council because they don’t reflect the people’s wishes,” Gadea said, pointing to widespread allegations of irregularities.

“We’ve had an electoral process that was corrupted from the beginning.”

Gadea’s rejection came long after supporters of Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) started celebrating in the capital and as six people protesting the official results were wounded in clashes with riot police in the south of the country Monday.

“They stole the elections here, we’re not stupid,” said one woman protesting in the town of Masaya. Local media reported other protests in Jalapa, in the north of the country.

Ortega only needed 40 percent to take a first round victory and avoid a run-off vote.

The former rebel leader has presided over economic growth in his latest term in office, using financial aid from his leftist ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for popular social programs and making savvy deals with former foes in the church and business elite.

He faced a fractured opposition in a vote marked by accusations of irregularities and complaints of “difficulties” from international observers, including the Organization of American States and the European Union.

Dante Caputo, who led the observer team from the Organization of American States (OAS) regional body, said his staff was blocked from 10 of 52 polling stations, out of some 4,200 altogether.

The head of a European Union observer team, Luis Yanez, noted “sometimes inexplicable obstacles” and “cheating in a process that should be free.”

Tension has risen since a November 2009 Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for Ortega to seek a third term as president. Consecutive re-elections and third terms were supposedly banned.

Several clashes, leaving some two dozen wounded, took place between opposition activists and Ortega’s Sandinista supporters in Managua and northern areas Sunday, while some of the 3.4 million eligible voters complained of a lack of documents to be able to vote.

Ortega, who had yet to appear in public, had said he was confident of a sweeping victory.

“This vote will be very high for the Sandinista Front because it is the first time that there is a vote without fear,” he said.

His wife and spokeswoman Rosario Murillo on Sunday had already lauded “the victory of Christianity, socialism and solidarity.”

In Caracas, Chavez hailed Ortega’s re-election as “a resounding triumph,” while leading U.S. Republican lawmaker Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called it a “complete sham.”

Ortega was first elected president of the nation of almost six million in 1984, and has been a central figure since leading a guerrilla movement that ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

Former US president Ronald Reagan accused the Sandinistas of fostering revolutionary movements in the region and Ortega was voted out of power in 1990 after a civil war against U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

But Ortega, who had two unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1996 and 2001, modified his message and reconciled with the church and business elite.

Since 2006, Nicaragua’s economy has enjoyed steady growth and exports have doubled.

Opponents criticize the aid Ortega has received from Chavez – estimated at more than $1.6 billion since 2007.

Nicaragua maintains a free trade deal with the United States, despite Ortega’s anti-imperialist discourse and links to Washington foes such as Iran.

The former rebel still enjoys support in rural and marginalized areas of Nicaragua, where almost half the population lives in poverty.

With Ortega so comfortably ahead, his four right-wing rivals focused on Congress, where 90 seats were also up for grabs.

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