MANAGUA (Reuters) - President Daniel Ortega looks certain to win re-election on Sunday with the support of Nicaragua’s impoverished majority and his left-wing ally, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
A former Marxist guerrilla commander and long-time foe of the United States, Ortega has cemented his hold on the country with programs to improve health and education, microcredit schemes and gifts of livestock to farmers.
He has a strong poll lead over the conservative opposition, which is fractured and was unable to pick a unity candidate to run against him.
Ortega was allowed to run for re-election after the Supreme Court in 2009 lifted a ban on presidents serving successive terms. His Sandinista party controls the court and opponents accuse him of imposing his will on the judiciary.
Ortega, who led a Sandinista rebel army in ousting the Somoza family dictatorship in a 1979 revolution, has in recent years moderated his socialist rhetoric but has joined the Chavez-led bloc of left-wing governments in Latin America.
“We are going to continue doing the good that we’ve been doing,” the 65-year-old Cold War veteran told a recent rally. “We still need to eradicate many illnesses that our society has suffered from, the illness of hunger and unemployment.”
Backed by Venezuela’s oil wealth, Ortega has managed to cut poverty in the largely agrarian Central American nation, and a recent CID-Gallup poll gave Ortega 48 percent voter support, way ahead of his nearest rivals.
“None of the governments prior to Daniel Ortega attended to the poor like this one is doing today, and that weighs heavily when people cast their votes,” said Nestor Avendano, an economics professor in Managua.
The main opposition candidates are former president Arnoldo Aleman and radio personality Fabio Gadea, but they both refused to step aside in order to avoid splitting the conservative vote.
The CID-Gallup poll showed Gadea with 30 percent support while Aleman trailed on 11 percent.
To win in the first round and avoid a run-off, Ortega needs at least 40 percent of the vote on Sunday, or 35 percent and a five percentage point lead over his closest rival.
Ortega was one of the commanders who seized power in the 1979 revolution and became the main figure in the Sandinista government that survived a U.S.-backed “Contra” rebellion in the 1980s, when Cold War conflicts raged across Central America.
He was elected president in 1984 but was voted out of power in 1990 and spent 16 years in opposition until returning to power with a changed image, presenting himself as a devout Christian and toning down his rhetoric.
But many say Ortega is an authoritarian leader and that the Supreme Court ruling on consecutive terms has left the field open for him to abuse his power.
“The electoral process in Nicaragua is completely vitiated. This could be the start of a tyranny, dictatorship or dynasty,” said Rafael Gutierrez, a student at a Managua university.
Ortega’s relations with Washington remain tense and the U.S. government said it is concerned about irregularities ahead of the election, including the difficulties some voters had in obtaining proper identification and the “failure to accredit certain credible domestic organizations as observers”.
If re-elected, Ortega has pledged to continue and extend anti-poverty programs that include giving cows, pigs and hens to rural families.
Poverty has fallen to 57 percent of the population from 65.5 percent in 2005, according to government and World Bank statistics, although Nicaragua is still second only to Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Oil-rich Venezuela, which suffers from blackouts and food shortages, sends up to $500 million a year to Nicaragua under a cooperation agreement.
Analysts say the funds are worth about 7 percent of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product. They include preferential access to oil, allowing the country to weather price spikes that have hit poor regional neighbors like Honduras.
“This is the only government which has restored the rights of everyone and supports the poor,” said Guillermo Obregon, a 17-year-old supporter of Ortega who will be voting for the first time.
Ortega now speaks of God with the deliberateness of a parish priest and is often accompanied by Miguel Obando y Bravo, a Roman Catholic cardinal and former political foe.
His wife and main government spokeswoman is Rosario Murillo, known for her gaudy multicolored jewelry, and she is nearly always by his side.
The key to understanding Ortega’s success is his use of “responsible populism”, said Arturo Cruz, an analyst at the Central American Institute of Business Administration.
“This is a government that is quite effective in resolving pressing issues,” he said. “He has acted like a giant mayor who is close to the immediate needs of the people.”
Additional reporting by Anahi Rama, Writing by Sean Mattson; Editing by Kieran Murray