(Reuters) - Nicaragua holds presidential elections on Sunday with incumbent Daniel Ortega favored to win a second consecutive term for his party of former Marxist guerrillas, the Sandinista National Liberation Front.
His hopes of winning a second term were made possible by a divisive Supreme Court ruling in 2009 that overturned a ban on re-election. Ortega’s chances have also been boosted by divisions inside the conservative opposition.
Ortega can win without facing a run-off vote if he gets at least 40 percent of the vote or 35 percent and a 5 percentage point lead over his nearest rival. Recent polls show him with well over 40 percent support.
Following are profiles of the main candidates.
A central figure in Nicaraguan politics for more than three decades, the leftist Ortega has cemented his hold on power in the Central American nation through generous social spending backed by Venezuela’s oil-rich leader, Hugo Chavez.
Ortega, 65, has been a longtime foe of the United States, which unsuccessfully orchestrated efforts to overthrow his revolutionary government in the 1980s.
He was voted out of power in 1990 but retook the presidency in 2006.
Successive terms were banned until the Supreme Court, which is controlled by Ortega’s Sandinistas, controversially did away with the restrictions in 2009.
Ortega’s tenure has brought improvement to still-dismal poverty indicators, government and World Bank figures show. His Venezuela-backed spending on health, education, housing and livestock has won over the long-neglected rural poor.
But Haiti is the only country in the Americas with a lower gross domestic product per capita than Nicaragua.
Ortega’s critics say his government has done little to help Nicaragua diversify from textile and commodity exports and it has becoming increasingly dependent on handouts from Venezuela, estimated at $500 million per year, or about 7 percent of gross domestic product.
Opponents say the Venezuelan funds are not handled transparently, reflecting his administration in general.
Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla whose Sandinistas put an end to decades of rule by the Somoza family in 1979, shares the leftist ideology of his younger ally Chavez.
Ortega has in recent years presented himself as a devout Christian, swapping his military fatigues for white shirts and using pink banners on the campaign trail rather than the Sandinistas’ traditional red and black flag.
Often accompanied by Roman Catholic cardinal and ex-foe Miguel Obando y Bravo, Ortega now sports peace symbols and uses a slogan calling for solidarity on a Christian-socialist platform.
The 79-year-old Gadea is a veteran radio personality backed by the Liberal Independent Party, an alliance of right-wing groups and dissident Sandinistas.
Gadea has pledged to deliver a “revolution in honesty” and more investment as well as continue the fight against poverty and maintain the government’s health and education programs.
“This is my dream for these five years of government — that God give me the last years of my life to surround myself with young people and teach them,” he said in a recent interview with Reuters. “I am a man who’s going to turn 80, there’s not much left for me to do.”
After decades on the airwaves, Gadea is famous for the colorful characters he has created, including farmer “Pancho Madrigal” who shares tales of life in the countryside.
His candidacy arose after Eduardo Montealegre, a former banker who lost the 2006 election to Ortega, decided not to run and backed Gadea as the “candidate of consensus.”
Yet Gadea was unable to forge an alliance with former President Arnoldo Aleman, leader of Nicaragua’s main right wing party — even though his son is married to Aleman’s daughter.
Aleman was president from 1997 to 2002 after he defeated Ortega in the 1996 election. He now hopes to return to power with promises to revitalize the economy with 1 million new jobs, investment and more social programs.
Aleman, 65, was accused of embezzlement and money laundering by his vice president and successor in the presidency, Enrique Bolanos.
A former mayor of Managua, Aleman was sentenced to 20 years in prison but his house arrest-like detention ended in 2009 when the Supreme Court exonerated him.
“We’re on the doorstep of a dictatorship,” Aleman, a lawyer and coffee farmer, told Reuters in a recent interview, referring to Ortega’s re-election and concerns he would seek to keep himself in power like his ally Chavez.
“If you aren’t a member of his party here, you don’t have the right to work. If the mayor is not from his party here, he doesn’t receive any government transfers.”
The majority of polls place Gadea in second place and Aleman in third.
Reporting by Ivan Castro and Sean Mattson; Editing by Kieran Murray