Nicaraguan Presidential Election Fraught With History

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's critics call him a dictator. His supporters say he's a revolutionary populist. As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, Ortega is defying both a constitutional two-term limit on presidents and a ban on serving consecutive terms to run for an unprecedented third term. The election is Sunday.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: Nicaraguans go to the polls today and are expected to reelect President Daniel Ortega, who is running in spite of a constitutional ban on presidents serving consecutive terms. Ortega, a Marxist icon of the 1980s, has become a polarizing figure in the Central American nation. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

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JASON BEAUBIEN: Martha Alicia Alvado loves Daniel Ortega. After all, it's because of him that she has her own house.

MARTHA ALICIA ALVADO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: She says she's very thankful to the comandante because before she was renting a house without a future. Alvado has spent her entire career as a janitor at a public school. When her daughter's were young, her husband went to Costa Rica to look for work and never came back. As a single mother, Alvado says she struggled to raise her children and pay her rent, then three years ago Ortega's administration was offering houses to teachers, and the teachers at her school got her name on the list.

ALVADO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: But thanks to God they included me, she says. Now she lives with her two adult daughters in the simple cinderblock house. Instead of paying rent, she pays a mortgage of $80 a month but there was no down payment and the first year was free. Alvado says this is what Daniel Ortega has been doing for the country.

ALVADO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: He's always thinking about the poor, she says. He's always thinking about what's best for Nicaragua. But his critics say by doling out social programs to his Sandinista supporters, Ortega is shoring up support among his political base and consolidating power for himself.

CARLOS CHAMORRO: This election is important because of the candidacy of Daniel Ortega for reelection.

BEAUBIEN: Carlos Chamorro is a prominent journalist in Managua.

CHAMORRO: It is an illegal and unconstitutional candidate.

BEAUBIEN: Chamorro is the son of Violeta Chamorro, who in 1990 defeated then incumbent president Daniel Ortega for the presidency. Carlos Chamorro says the Nicaraguan constitution clearly bans Ortega from running in this election. Ortega won a controversial ruling from six members of the Supreme Court authorizing his candidacy. Chamorro says Ortega can't envision Nicaragua without him as president, nor does Ortega accept the idea of a legitimate loyal opposition.

CHAMORRO: I can tell you something, if he continues in this trend of concentrating power, of not accepting any kind of accountability, or any kind of balance of power, Ortega is going to end badly - very, very badly.

BEAUBIEN: In the 1970s, Ortega was one of the leaders of the Marxist Sandinista Guerillas fighting to overthrow the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship. But Chamorro says Ortega is now on track to become a dictator just like Somoza. Chamorro says Ortega is expanding his private business interests at the same time that he's consolidating control over all aspects of the government. But Ortega supporters say El Comandante actually is getting things done in Nicaragua. They point out that the electricity remains on in the capital, something that was a rarity five years ago.

Ortega, who still describes himself as a socialist, has been praised by the World Bank for his free market macroeconomic policies. Edwin Castro is the coordinator of the Sandinista bloc of the deputies in the Nicaraguan National Assembly. He says Ortega is focused on reducing poverty.

EDWIN CASTRO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I think the people understand this, Castro says, and for this, there's a lot of sympathy for the government of Daniel Ortega. He says public support for Ortega has grown steadily over the last five years of his presidency. Castro and other backers of the Sandinista leader say they aren't concerned that Ortega is violating the constitution to run for reelection.

CASTRO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Using a sports analogy, Castro says, when you're team is winning, why should you change the captain? But this disregard for the law by Ortega and the Sandinistas isn't lost on ordinary Nicaraguans. Luz Cecilia is a fish seller in Managua. She won't give her last name, but she said the Sandinistas rigged the vote for mayor of the capital in 2008, and they're going to rig this election.

LUZ CECELIA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: It's not worth it to vote because they're going to rob the election she says, and she adds that's why she's not going to give me her last name. Preliminary election results are expected tomorrow. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Managua.

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