Nicaraguans went to the polls to choose a new president yesterday as violence erupted between supporters and opponents of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who is eyeing a third term in weekend elections.
About 150 supporters of Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) fought with sticks and stones in Sebaco, 90km north of Managua on Saturday, according to local authorities.
At least 15 protesters and two policemen were injured. One of the injured apparently suffered from gunshot wounds or an improvised mortar explosion, a fire department spokesman said.
The incident allegedly began when PLI supporters demanded to see identity cards. Police restored order and the municipal office was closed just hours before voting was due to begin.
Other clashes took place in some northern and eastern villages.
A tense climate prevailed ahead of the vote, as police, some in riot gear, patrolled the streets and stood guard near the headquarters of the Supreme Electoral Council, west of Managua. Small groups of anti-Ortega activists burned tires, but without major incidents.
Ortega, a former leftist rebel and harsh critic of the US, has changed rules to seek a third term against a weakened and split opposition.
The 65-year-old ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez helped overthrow the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979 and still heads the FSLN in Central America’s poorest nation.
Ortega, who sports a thick mustache, scored 48 percent against 30 percent for his closest rival, 79-year-old radio host Fabio Gadea, in the latest Cid Gallup poll.
The PLI’s Gadea stands on an anti-corruption ticket, while former Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Aleman, a distant third, has fought off corruption allegations.
Gadea supporter Javier Miranda said the authorities were “stealing the elections” in favor of Ortega.
However, electoral council chief Roberto Rivas accused the PLI of “hindering” the distribution of election materials in remote parts of the country in hopes of “boycotting” the voting process.
With Ortega in the lead, his four right-wing rivals have focused on the Nicaraguan Congress, where 90 seats are up for grabs.
Judges in Nicaragua’s Supreme Court controversially lifted a constitutional ban to clear the way for Ortega’s candidacy, echoing similar attempts in many Latin American nations.
Ortega said he was continuing the 1980s revolution and still enjoys solid support in rural and marginalized areas of Nicaragua, where almost half of the population of 5.8 million live in poverty.
His opponents have criticized his bid to stay in power as well as the aid he has received from Chavez — estimated at more than US$1.6 billion since 2007 — which has propped up popular social programs, including for subsidized housing.
The FSLN lost power in 1989, after a civil war against the US-backed Contra rebels. Ortega won a second five-year term as president in 2006.
Despite his ties to the leftist firebrand Chavez, Ortega has succeeded in wooing investors, with Nicaragua seen as a relatively safe haven alongside some of the world’s most violent nations, like neighboring Honduras or El Salvador.
Ortega also maintains a free-trade agreement with the US, despite his anti-imperialist discourse and links to Washington bugbears such as Iran.
The US is the main destination for Nicaragua’s exports, followed by Venezuela. Economic growth is predicted to reach 4 percent this year