UPDATED: Nicaragua’s Ortega coasting to victory after contentious election

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SAN JOSE, Nov 8 (Reuters) – Early voting results in Nicaragua on Monday showed President Daniel Ortega securing a fourth straight term in office by a landslide in what Washington dubbed a sham election due to the veteran leader’s unstinting suppression of his opponents.

Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council said that with roughly half the ballots counted, a preliminary tally gave Ortega about 75% of votes in the presidential election, which had been widely criticized in advance by Western powers as Ortega vigorously set about jailing rivals and criminalizing dissent.

U.S. President Joe Biden, in a statement issued before the tally was announced, said Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, had orchestrated a “pantomime election that was neither free nor fair.”

A former Marxist guerilla who helped topple the right-wing Somoza family dictatorship in the late 1970s, Ortega says he is defending Nicaragua against unscrupulous adversaries bent on ousting him with the aid of foreign powers.

Ortega is the longest-serving leader in the Americas, and U.S. officials are considering new sanctions against his government, and a review of Nicaragua’s role in a key regional trade pact.

Biden called on Ortega to restore democracy and release detained opposition leaders. Until that happened, the United States would use all available “diplomatic and economic tools” to hold the Ortega administration to account, he said.

Just five little-known candidates of small parties allied to Ortega’s Sandinistas ran against him on the ballot.

“Most people I know decided not to vote, they say it’s madness,” said Naomi, an opponent of the government from the eastern port of Bluefields, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals.

“What they’re doing here is a joke.”

In the 1980s, Ortega served a single term as president before being voted out. He returned to the top job in 2007.

On Sunday afternoon, Ortega hailed the latest election as a victory delivered by the “immense majority of Nicaraguans”, and lashed out at domestic opponents, calling them “demons.”

Thousands of Nicaraguans have fled from their homeland since a 2018 crackdown on anti-government protests in which more than 300 people were killed. Many of them gathered in neighboring Costa Rica on Sunday in a show of defiance against Ortega.

Prolonged discontent is expected to fuel more emigration to Costa Rica and the United States, where record numbers of Nicaraguans have been apprehended at the border this year.

International observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States were not allowed to participate, and journalists have been barred from entering the country.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon Additional reporting by Jake Kincaid Editing by Dave Graham and Robert Birsel)

Photo – Dozens of Nicaraguans residing in Panama protest on the coastal strip in Panama City, Panama, . Nicaraguans rejected their country’s current Presidential elections, demanded freedom for political prisoners and free elections, and the resignation of President Daniel Ortega. EPA-EFE/Bienvenido Velasco

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