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Ortega and wife seen winning new mandate to run Nicaragua

MANAGUA (AFP) – 

Nicaragua is voting Sunday in elections that look certain to hand President Daniel Ortega a third straight term, this time with his eccentric but equally ironfisted wife as his vice president.

Polls indicate more than 60 percent support for Ortega and wife Rosario Murillo, with rival candidates for the presidency trailing far behind.

Voting stations in the country, one of the poorest in the Americas, but also one of the safest, will open Sunday at 7:00am (1300 GMT) and are scheduled to close at 6:00pm (0000 GMT Monday), with results expected hours later.

The elections will choose the president, and 90 of the seats in the country’s 92-seat single chamber National Assembly, the other two seats going to the president and runnerup.

Part of the opposition, which has been sidelined and weakened by maneuverings by Ortega, the courts and electoral officials, is calling for voters to spurn the elections, focusing attention more on the turnout of the four-million-strong electorate than the result.

– Popular president –

Ortega is a former Marxist rebel who became president in 1985 for an initial five-year term. After 17 years in opposition, he was elected back as leader in 2006 and has ruled ever since.

His style of rule has become increasingly distant in recent years, with a notable reluctance to appear in government or before the media, leading critics to describe him as autocratic, or wondering if the 70-year-old was suffering health problems.

But his leftwing sensibilities, stabilizing economic policies and development of social programs have made him widely popular, earning unshakeable loyalty from the many poor.

“The government has done good things,” said Mario Lechado, who sifts and collects trash from a market in the capital. He was proud that his six children have the opportunity to go to school, for free, to study for a future better than his own.

“I’m going to vote for my president because nobody has done what he does,” said 91-year-old retiree Gloria Rodriguez, who receives government food packages and lives in a state-built house.

Popular, too, is Murillo, 65, the public face of Ortega’s regime.

The official government spokeswoman, she is the one who daily addresses the nation on state media, adopting a warm and sisterly tone that extols the work of the administration.

In public, she favors colorful, hippy-style dresses and jewelry.

– Powerful first lady –

Many inside and outside Nicaragua see Murillo as already sharing power with Ortega.

Becoming vice president would formalize the arrangement — and also position her to possibly become president herself, should Ortega bow out, or in the next elections in 2021.

“For the past 10 years, Mrs Murillo has assumed on many occasions the functions of head-of-state,” Veronica Rueda Estrada, a Nicaragua expert and professor at Mexico’s Quintana Roo University told AFP by email.

“Things will definitely continue like that and it’s possible they will even increase, with the variable that after November 6 she will have the legitimacy of being elected.”

The global attention on the US elections, taking place just two days after Nicaragua’s, has eased international scrutiny on Ortega’s decisions.

Most notable was his refusal to allow in election monitors, though some officials from the Organization of American States are in the country in a lesser role, at his invitation.

There is also his recent acquisition of Russian weapons, including combat tanks.

But once America’s electoral battle was out of the way, “it’s likely media attention will turn its eyes to Nicaragua — and maybe also Venezuela,” Rueda said.

Some Nicaraguans said they would not vote, or were uncertain, because they worried Ortega was ushering in a single-party state like Cuba.

“I don’t know who to vote for,” said Elvis Lanzas, a 28-year-old security guard.

Some state workers complained to La Prensa newspaper that they had been threatened with dismissal if they did not vote for Ortega and his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

© 2016 AFP