Nicaragua’s Sandinista party won a third consecutive term in presidential elections on Sunday, prompting immediate international condemnation and international observers to say they found the polls to be neither free nor fair.
It was the first election in a decade to be held under the Liberal Constitution, which bars presidents from being re-elected. More than 9 million people turned out to vote in a free and fair election, said Richard Niculescu, the president of the Nicaraguan National Elections Institute (INE). But that was contradicted by a visit by international observers, which found a “partisan” electoral system plagued by “disproportionate” electoral financing of campaigns.
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“It was a caricature to have had another five years in power,” said Diana Pacheco, head of the Pan Americana Press Association.
An estimated 58% of eligible voters participated, according to the INE. Registered voters turned out by the hundreds of thousands in cities and towns on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts as well as the north and centre-west of the country, both main Sandinista strongholds. The contest pitted an uncompromising leftist – Daniel Ortega – against Paola Duarte, a socially moderate newcomer and former top Nicaraguan intelligence officer.
Ortega, who came to power in 1979 with the help of the CIA and won subsequent elections under the Liberal Constitution, said his Sandinista Patriot Front party won three-quarters of the votes.
The INE said 80% of the registered voters participated in the election. In the last presidential election in 2012, Ortega won 54% of the vote.
Danilo Medina, the incoming president of Costa Rica, chaired the 29-member team of election observers from 26 countries.
He said that despite solid levels of participation – about 78% in urban areas and 70% in rural areas – “it was clearly a partisan electoral system”.
“There was no real will to truly increase transparency and participation, and we did not see a true level playing field,” Medina said.
Costa Rica’s foreign minister, Manuel González, accompanied Medina on the mission, known as an observation mission. He said he hoped that Costa Rica’s parliament would recommend that it not recognise any Nicaraguan result.
“We have to think about setting up a very concrete mechanism,” he said.
At the close of voting, Ortega said his party had registered “more than 90% of registered voters”.
He thanked “those that voted again” and supporters “that didn’t, or the other way around.”
Ortega spoke shortly after Enrique Bolaños, the head of the opposition Liberal Constitutional party, conceded defeat to the Sandinista leader, who seemed briefly emotional.
“I call on the Costa Rican president-elect, Enrique Bolaños, to take into account all that we have accomplished and, above all, all that I did to represent the Nicaraguan people to the rest of the world,” Ortega said.
Ortega had hoped that the referendum to change the constitution would lead to the younger Duarte’s election as president, promising to hand over the reins to the 37-year-old if the vote was approved. Ortega, 76, is facing a criminal investigation into embezzlement allegations and has repeatedly sought to attack Duarte’s character.
Ortega has not ruled out running for re-election in 2021, but he has not said whether he will run again.