Sunday’s elections follow a month-long crackdown on the opposition and have been dismissed by observers as not credible.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega will seek a fourth consecutive term in the elections that have been widely condemned by international rights groups and observers.
Ortega, whose Sandinista Front and ally control Congress and government institutions, will face a camp of little-known candidates on Sunday, while the opposition figures who represented the most significant challenge to the government of the former revolutionary leader remain in prison.
The election will determine who will hold the presidency for the next five years, as well as 90 of the 92 seats in the country’s congress and Nicaragua’s representation in the Central American parliament.
The opposition has called on Nicaraguans to stay home to protest what they say is a corrupt election process. Ortega, in the meantime, took the leap international criticism to further foment nationalist sentiment.
As a young revolutionary, Ortega helped overthrow the anti-Communist strongman Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He first served as president from 1985 to 1990, before returning to power in 2007.
But critics say Ortega’s government has come to resemble the government it resisted. This was particularly on display in between anti-government protests in 2018, which saw violent crackdowns by security forces and pro-government armed groups. More than 300 people were killed during the riots, with Ortega denouncing the protesters as “terrorists”.
Ortega recently declared his wife, First Lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo, “co-president”.
In June, police arrested seven potential presidential challengers with what human rights groups call fabricated charges, including damaging “national integrity,” working with foreign governments, and money laundering. They remained in detention on election day. About two dozen other opposition leaders were also arrested ahead of the elections.
With little doubt about the outcome of the presidential elections, attention is already focusing on what the international response will be as Ortega tries to strengthen his hold on power.
The United States and the European Union have penalties imposed against those in Ortega’s inner circle, but Ortega only responded by arresting more of his opponents.
On Friday, a senior U.S. State Department official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. government was willing to consider further targeted sanctions, but tried to avoid measures that would have a wider impact on the Nicaraguan people.
“It is very difficult when you have a government that has very minimal goals which include staying in power at any cost and ignoring the will of its citizens or the needs of citizens to retain that power,” the official said.
The Organization of American States also condemned the detention of political prisoners in Nicaragua and the reluctance to hold free and fair elections, but Ortega’s government only lashed out at foreign interference.
The regional body will hold its annual general meeting in Guatemala later this week. Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico were among the seven countries that abstained from voting on a resolution last month condemning the repression in Nicaragua.
The polls were due to close at 18:00 local time (00:00 GMT) and the Supreme Electoral Council said the first partial results would be published around midnight. Provisional total votes are expected on Monday.
According to the government, some 30,000 police officers and soldiers have been deployed to protect the voting sites.