Daniel Ortega won a fourth consecutive presidential term Monday in elections denounced by the United States as a "sham," with the long-term Nicaraguan leader deriding his opponents – most of them jailed or in exile – as "terrorists."
With ballots in 49 percent of polling stations counted, Ortega had 75 percent of votes, according to official partial results from the country's Supreme Electoral Council.
With seven would-be presidential challengers detained since June, the 75-year-old was assured a fourth consecutive five-year term – his fifth overall. The five contenders he did face have been dismissed by critics as regime loyalists.
Late on Sunday night, some of Ortega's followers began to celebrate on the streets of the capital Managua even before the final result.
"Yes we did it, Daniel, Daniel!" they shouted in several neighbourhoods as fireworks went off.
US President Joe Biden said in a statement on Sunday that the outcome was "rigged" long before the "sham" election.
"What Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, orchestrated today was a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic," the president said, adding the pair now run Nicaragua "as autocrats."
Former guerilla hero Ortega launched a new attack on his opponents Sunday, saying: "This day we are standing up to those who promote terrorism, finance war, to those who sow terror, death."
He was referring to Nicaraguans who took part in massive protests against his government in 2018, which were met with a violent crackdown that claimed more than 300 lives in Central America's poorest country.
Some 150 people have been jailed since then, including 39 opposition figures rounded up since June in the run-up to the vote.
Polling stations closed Sunday after 11 hours of voting under the watchful eye of 30,000 police and soldiers.
The Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH) said Nicaragua was a "police state" using tactics of "fear [and] social control" to "crush the opposition."
The opposition said the vote was marked by mass abstention even as the government claimed a turnout of 65 percent.
Fear vied with apathy among the 4.4 million Nicaraguans eligible to cast votes in the country of 6.5 million.
"No-one from my family went to vote. This was a mockery for Nicaraguans," said a 49-year-old woman who runs a grocery store.
Like many others, she was too scared to give her name.
Short lines of voters wearing face masks could be seen at some of the 13,459 polling stations, but many were empty when AFP visited.
At one of them, Pablo de Jesús Rodríguez, a 26-year-old carpenter and bricklayer, told AFP: "The president has done good things for our country," as he cast his vote.
There were protests Sunday in Costa Rica, Spain, the United States and Guatemala, countries that are home to thousands of Nicaraguan exiles.
The election took place without international observers and with most foreign media denied access to the country.
On Sunday, Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro – his own 2018 re-election not recognised by most of the international community – congratulated Ortega on his imminent victory.
Costa Rica, however, said in a Sunday statement it did not recognise Nicaragua's elections "in the absence of conditions... to accredit the elections as transparent, credible, independent, free, fair and inclusive."
A firebrand Marxist in his youth, Ortega ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, after the guerrilla ousting of US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
Returning to power in 2007, he has won reelection four times and quashed presidential term limits.
Jailed opposition figures, including journalists, are accused of unspecified attacks on Nicaragua's "sovereignty" under a law passed by a parliament dominated by Ortega allies, who also control the judiciary and electoral body.
Election authorities banned the country's main opposition alliance from contesting Sunday's vote.
Two-thirds of respondents in a Cid-Gallup poll said they would have voted for an opposition candidate Sunday.
The favorite was Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who is the only person to have beaten Ortega in an election, in 1990.
Chamorro is under house arrest, and six other would-be presidential hopefuls are jailed in conditions their families say amount to torture.
The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions against the Ortega family members and allies.
by María Isabel Sánchez, AFP