MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Voting results tallied early Monday gave Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega a resounding re-election victory but international election observers reported that they had detected serious irregularities in balloting.
Ortega, a onetime leftist guerrilla leader and acolyte of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, is seeking his third term in office despite the Nicaraguan Constitution's ban on presidential re-election.
With about 17 percent of the ballots counted, election officials at 3:08 a.m. said Ortega’s Sandinista Front was winning 64 percent of the vote and the primary opposition force only 29 percent.
That margin was far greater than any pre-electoral opinion surveys had suggested and appeared likely to increase tensions with an opposition that claims Ortega wants to perpetuate one-man rule in the Central American nation.
Ortega supporters streamed into a central plaza to celebrate victory late Sunday night as the first results were released.
Fabio Gadea, a 79-year-old radio station founder who led the opposition Independent Liberal Alliance Party ticket said he wait until the last ballot was counted among Nicargua’s 3.4 million voters before acknowledging the results.
Voting was marred by scattered violence, including reports of gunfire that wounded four people near the coffee-growing city of Matagalpa and arson attacks on several rural precincts.
Even so, chiefs of the two major international observer teams in Nicaragua for the election voiced deep reservations about how the vote was conducted.
Luis Yanez, a Spanish legislator who heads a European Union delegation, said 20 of the group's 90 observers faced "inexplicable" difficulties in gaining access to polling stations.
"I don't understand why there are so many obstacles, so much opacity and so many tricks in a process that should be clean and transparent," Yanez said, adding that some precincts opened late, blocked opposition election monitors and filed vote tallies that were illegible.
Dante Caputo, a former foreign minister from Argentina who heads an observer mission from the Organization of American States, said obstacles were tantamount to a disavowal by the Ortega government of accords to allow election observers.
At least 10 OAS teams arrived at key precincts around the country where they were to monitor voting and ballot counting only to be told they could not enter, Caputo said.
"We faced a series of difficulties . . . We were blocked from being where we were supposed to be. This kind of situation has not happened before. It is worrisome," Caputo said.
Opinion polls prior to the election said Ortega would win re-election in the first round over Gadea, who ran as head of a broad alliance that included conservatives and bitter one-time Sandinista allies of Ortega who now consider him a nascent autocrat.
A third candidate, former President Arnoldo Aleman, was tallying barely 6 percent of the vote, according to the early tallies.
Perhaps more important than the presidential balloting, however, was voting for the 92 seats in Nicaragua's National Assembly. The Sandinista Front currently holds 38 seats, the largest bloc in the assembly, but needs to win 56 for a super majority that would allow Ortega to change the Constitution.
Under a bright afternoon sun, Ortega emerged from a precinct in the El Carmen district of Managua, his shirtsleeves rolled up, predicting "a very high vote for the Sandinista Front" that he leads.
Ortega, who had previously been president from 1985 to 1990 before winning election again in 2005, defended his choice to defy the constitution and seek re-election to a consecutive term. He said presidential re-election has been under debate in Costa Rica and Colombia, and "in the end, the people finally will decide. They have the last word."
Ortega is a close ally of Roberto Rivas, head of the Supreme Electoral Council, a supposedly independent branch of government. Rivas, a former charity manager, has grown wealthy under Ortega.
While in office, the once-atheist Ortega has reconciled with a longtime nemesis, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, a key figure in the Catholic nation, and now professes to be a devout Christian.
Ortega's popularity been helped by electricity subsidies, housing programs and food baskets for the poor, mostly financed by off-the-books assistance from Venezuela that may amount to more than $2 billion since 2007.
He's also been helped by high prices for his poor nation's chief exports, including coffee, beef and gold, and a regional free-trade agreement with the United States. While Ortega often uses fierce anti-imperialist rhetoric, in practice he has sought not to antagonize Washington.