MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega appears to have a clear path to a third consecutive term following recent moves that weakened the country's opposition.
Polls show the former guerrilla fighter easily winning Sunday's presidential election with more than 50 percent of the vote in a field that includes five other lesser-known candidates. He's running with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his vice presidential candidate.
Nicaragua's steady economic growth and low levels of violence compared to neighboring Honduras and El Salvador have won support for Ortega and his leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front. Many Nicaraguans also cite the first lady's social programs as a major reason for the governing party's popularity.
But his critics say his allies have manipulated the Central American country's political system to guarantee he stays in power by dominating its branches of government, allowing indefinite presidential re-election and delegitimizing the only opposition force seen as capable of challenging him. They accuse him of wanting to form a political dynasty together with his wife.
"I don't think it's worth voting and wasting time, because it's already fixed," said Glenda Bendana, an appliance sales executive in a Managua shopping mall. "Here they have taken away not our right to vote, but to choose. Ortega wants to die in power and leave his wife to take his place."
In July, Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council effectively decimated the opposition by ousting almost all its members from congress — 28 active and alternate legislators from the Liberal Independent Party and its ally the Sandinista Renovation Movement — for not recognizing Pedro Reyes as their leader. Reyes was appointed as head of the opposition by the Supreme Court but is seen by many as a tool of Ortega. The ousted legislators had supported former opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre.
Since then, the most powerful opposition forces have moved to the sidelines of the nation's politics, urging Nicaraguans to join its boycott of the election, which it termed a "farce."
Many Nicaraguans, including political analyst Carlos Tunnerman, believe that the five other presidential candidates are not true opponents, but were placed on the ballot to make it seem that Ortega has legitimate competition.
"The only thing they are looking to do is play along with Ortega, permitting him to get additional small bits of power in the National Assembly, Tunnerman said.
Candidate Maximino Rodriguez, of the Liberal Constitutional Party, rejected that idea. "I only collaborate with the Nicaraguan people," he said.
Ortega, who helped topple the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza as a Sandinista guerrilla leader, ruled Nicaragua from 1979-1990. After losing power in a shock electoral defeat, he later returned to power through the ballot box, assuming the presidency in 2007.
Much of the criticism of Ortega dates back to 2010 when Nicaragua's Supreme Court, dominated by Sandinista-friendly judges, declared unconstitutional an article that barred the nation's president from running for a consecutive term. Ortega's detractors say it was the first step in ensuring his long-term hold on the country.
His current campaign for another five-year presidential term has been low key, without the massive rallies of elections past. Voters will also elect a new legislature.
"They are the dullest and least brilliant campaigns that we have had in recent times," political analyst Cairo Amador said.
Edwin Castro, leader of the ruling party's caucus in the National Assembly, attributed the smaller gatherings to a change in style.
"There are styles of campaigning," he said. "We're trying to make it the most environmentally friendly, doing events in towns, not big gatherings."
If Ortega is re-elected, he will face an increasingly difficult regional landscape.
Leftist ally Venezuela is overwhelmed by an economic crisis and Cuba is normalizing relations with the U.S.
The U.S. House of Representatives has moved to punish Nicaragua since the opposition was gutted, passing a bill to require the United States to oppose loans to Nicaragua from international lending institutions unless the country takes "effective steps to hold free, fair and transparent elections." A companion bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate.
"The lack of Venezuelan support, the international price of oil, the price of our exports and the possibility that (U.S. legislation passes) makes it a more complicated outlook for the Ortega in the next term," said Oscar Rene Vargas, a sociologist and economist from Central American University.