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Observers decry vote irregularities as Nicaragua's Ortega seeks new term

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States reported Sunday that they had detected serious irregularities in voting in what is expected to be a re-election victory for Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

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 presidents serving consecutive terms.

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. Elsewhere, voting occurred without incident as Nicaragua's 3.4 million voters aged 16 and older cast ballots for president, vice president and 90 deputies of the National Assembly.

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 likely win re-election in the first round over his main contender, Fabio Gadea, a 79-year-old radio executive 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, may barely break into double digits.

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.

By mid-evening, no vote tallies were available.

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.


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