MANAGUA – Back in May, the chances of Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega’s reelection to a fourth consecutive term on Sunday were looking good. His party was arranging the electoral calendar in his favor and the opposition was divided.
Then a CID-Gallup poll gave him a scare: It showed five potential opposition candidates with higher favorability ratings than Ortega.
In the weeks that followed, all five were arrested, as were two other possible contenders.
“Faced with that fear, Ortega decided to suppress any possibility of losing,” said Oscar René Vargas, a political analyst. “And that meant arresting everybody.”
Fast forward to this Sunday. The potential opposition candidates are still jailed or under house arrest, their parties banned, as Ortega faces off against a handful of little-known candidates from small parties friendly to his own Sandinista Front — factions known locally as “zancudos” or mosquitos.
The vote has been condemned as farcical by the United States, European Union and Organization of American States, as well as human rights and pro-democracy organizations.
“There is no choice. So the use of the word election is even in question because the broad opposition has been jailed or, in the case of Cristiana Chamorro, is in house arrest since June 2,” said Jennie Lincoln, senior advisor to The Carter Center, an institution that helped validate the fairness of Ortega's election in 2006 but found “significant deficiencies” when he won reelection five years later.
Lincoln, who has worked as an election observer throughout the region, said with the lack of real opposition and calls for voters to stay home on election day, "that is nothing that approaches international standards of an election, period.”
In Nicaragua, scenes of boisterous campaigns are absent. The government has banned massive campaign rallies under pandemic restrictions. There are no political ads on television. Even in the streets, evidence of the upcoming elections is limited to some small banners over streets and letter-size candidate posters pasted to light poles.
Ortega, who turns 76 on Nov. 11, and first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo hardly appeared during the campaign.
In addition to the presidential contest, the country is electing a new congress and representatives to the Central American Parliament.
On Wednesday, Michael Campbell, a Nicaraguan official, made a full-throated defense of the elections in an online meeting of the Organization of American States. He accused those criticizing Nicaragua's electoral process of seeking to overthrow the government "and feeding terrorism as a formula to destabilize national sovereignty.”
The country's economy continues to struggle and Nicaragua was one of the last in the region to receive COVID-19 vaccines. For much of the pandemic, the government minimized the threat and continued to hold mass gatherings. There were clashes in hospitals over the need to wear masks. Residents witnessed “express burials” of COVID-19 victims as the government tried to avoid panic.
Many Nicaraguans see little point in going to the polls but express fear of repercussions if they don’t vote.
Ana Castillo, a former public official who now owns a small coffee farm south of Managua, said she didn’t want to vote, but members of the local Sandinista Front council have been going door-to-door telling people they will be waiting for them at the polling place.
“They say they’ll take reprisals on Monday against those who don’t have stained fingers,” she said, referring to the indelible ink used to mark hands to prevent double voting.
María Moreno, a psychologist in Santa Teresa a town south of the capital, said she won’t go near the local voting location. “There’s no one to vote for,” she said. “It’s obvious that Ortega already stole the election. The result is ready, they’re just waiting for the date to publish it.”
Despite the crackdown, Ortega maintains a hard core of support. There are still those who see benefits from the government and remember its roots in the revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. That is who Ortega speaks to when he alleges that the massive public protests in April 2018 were part of a coup attempt with foreign backing. At least 328 people were killed when the protests were violently put down.
One of those backers is Rafael Espinoza, a 60-year-old mechanic in Managua’s San Judas neighborhood. “I’m going to vote because the Sandinista Front is the party of the poor,” he said. “Now we the poor have health, education and parks. Before, we didn’t have that.”
The potential challengers who were arrested this year — along with two dozen other opposition and student leaders — face charges related to money laundering or receiving foreign funding for what essentially boils down to treason. For weeks this summer, observers waited to see which opposition leader would be picked up next.
Often they were summoned to the Attorney General's Office for interviews and then arrested, their homes searched. For weeks they were held incommunicado without access to lawyers or visits from relatives. International condemnation had no effect.
What really happens on Sunday could be difficult to independently verify. Much of the foreign press been unable to get permission from the government to cover the elections.
The government has said some 30,000 “electoral police” will protect voting.
The Roman Catholic Church, which remains a powerful institution in Nicaragua, has been attacked by Ortega too, accused of collaborating with those he said were plotting the unrest of 2018. Some priests have gone so far as to urge people not to participate in the election.
“This Nov. 7 my fingerprint will be clean, like my conscience, because equal opportunity to elect has been lost, competition was eliminated and they took some of their own to make the opposition,” said the Rev. Uriel Vallejo, priest of the Divine Mercy Church in the north-central town of Sebaco — comments applauded by the opposition.
Earlier this year, with the electoral process already underway, the Supreme Electoral Council banned three opposition parties for alleged violations of electoral law.
Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst with International Crisis Group, said the candidates running against Ortega “are very little known in the country and are running for parties that have been broadly perceived as collaborators with the government.”
The Rev. Edwin Román, priest of San Miguel Church in Masaya, a city near Managua that was site of some of the fiercest protests in 2018, said Ortega will face “a group of sad candidates who do not represent the opposition.”
The group Open Ballot Boxes, made up of government critics, called this week for the elections to be declared illegitimate and demanded that new ones be held with no political prisoners and with credible international observers.
Josep Borrel, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, also dismissed the vote as he met with journalists in Lima, Peru, on Tuesday.
“I’m most worried about Nicaragua, that there are elections that are a complete fake," he said. "We are not going to send a electoral observation mission because Mr. Ortega already took care of jailing all of the political opposition that were going to run.”
AP writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.