Daniel Ortega, the leftist leader of Nicaragua, is up for re-election today, and many are expecting the former Marxist rebel to win another shot at president, due to a political makeover that includes a strong pro-Christian, pro-business image cloaked in populist socialism and shrewd use of oil money from Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. Others, however, believe Ortega's re-election is nothing but the further solidification of a dictatorship.
Ortega, running for his third consecutive term, should not even be running in the election, according to the Nicaraguan constitution, which prevents presidents from serving consecutive terms. But the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, controlled by members of Ortega's Sandinista party, changed that rule in 2009.
"The Sandinista judge decided that [Article 147 of the constitution], which says there are no consecutive re-elections, does not apply to Ortega. They said it violates other articles which state that everyone is created equally, so if the president can't run again, he's not being treated equally," Tim Rogers, editor of Nicaragua Dispatch, told the Tico Times.
The blatant disregard for term limits is something that has been creeping into other facets of government, which might be indicative of Ortega's solidification of power. Rogers added that the head of the Supreme Electoral Council, who is essentially in charge of counting the votes, had his term expired over a year ago, but was allowed to remain at his post by a special decree signed by Ortega.
"This could mark a real turning point in Nicaragua's fragile democracy, in that here's essentially a candidate whom the opposition calls illegal, running in an electoral system controlled by his party," Rogers said. "That electoral council has already been accused of various kinds of electoral fraud. It's a very precarious situation."
In addition to changing laws and disregarding term limits, Ortega has also increased his control over the economy by using oil money from Hugo Chavez to invest in a wide range of industries in Nicaragua, including energy, livestock, and oil distribution.
The investments have structured the Nicaraguan economy in a way that could potentially make it nearly impossible for one of Ortega's opponents to govern, even if they pull off an unlikely electoral victory, according to the BBC.
“If Fabio [Gadea] wins the presidency, Ortega could close the oil tap and cut off electricity because he owns the electrical plants. The next day Fabio falls," said former president Enrique Bolanos, referring to Ortega's leading challenger.
Despite the moves towards dictatorship, Ortega's rule has seen the Nicaraguan economy improve and foreign investment increase. Exports were up 32 percent in the first eight months of this year and American green energy companies have been flocking to the Central American nation, signing lucrative contracts, as the Ortega government works on phasing out fuel-based power in favor of geothermal, wind and hydroelectric energy, according to BusinessWeek.
"Nicaragua now has the fastest-growing economy in Central America. Ironically, it's become the poster child for the IMF," Rogers told the Tico Times. "Every year Ortega's been in power, Nicaragua has set new records for exports and FDI. The macroeconomic numbers are encouraging, and at the end of the day, that's what people care about."
Doing business in Nicaragua has also become easier, according to a World Bank study that saw the second-poorest country in the West move ahead of economic powerhouse Brazil in terms of a business-friendly climate.
Despite the economic improvements and friendlier business climate, the Nicaraguan people are still extremely poor: half of the population is living below the poverty level, including 60 percent of children, according to the United Nations Development Program. With such a vulnerable population, some have accused Ortega of manipulating poor voters through land and animal hand-outs, microcredit lending, and free zinc roofs for thousands of people.
In one campaign commercial, Ortega says that no Nicaraguan should not have a roof over his or her head.
"He's totally in solidarity with us poor people," said Andrea Benavidez, a 19-year-old mother of two in Managua, told the Associated Press. "I'm a Sandinista because of what Daniel has done for the youth. He has given us scholarships. He has built sports fields."
Ortega has also aligned himself with the church, having won support of the highly influential Catholic Church in a country that is 85 percent Catholic, by enacting an all-out ban on abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.
In addition, Ortega touts his "Christian, socialist, solidarity" on pink and blue billboards and signs all across the country, further imprinting his image as a benevolent Christian figure that feeds and protects the poor, a far cry from the anti-religion, Marxist guerrilla Ortega embodied when he presided over the country throughout the 1980's.
The combination of economic improvements and a faithful electorate has led many experts to believe that Ortega is all but guaranteed a win, a presumption bolstered by poll after poll showing Ortega has the election all but won.
Nonetheless, that has not stopped allegations of voter fraud. The chief of the European Union's election observer mission to Nicaragua told Nicaragua's Channel 12 that thousands of voter identity cards were purposely not delivered to voters in areas near Matagalpa, reported the German Press Agency. Those areas have not historically been Sandinista strongholds.
There have also been reports of violence, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a nongovernmental agency promoting human rights in the region.
"We are alarmed by the growing climate of intolerance for those who are perceived as critics of the federal government," WOLA said on its website. "The physical attack on a march of opposition party activists, and the apparent unwillingness of the police to restore order, the criminal investigations of several civil society organizations and their leaders, as well as the investigation of international NGOs that have funded some of these organizations, is extremely troubling."
Voting results are expected to be available Sunday night.