MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The U.S. Embassy has been accused of counterrevolutionary subversion. A nervous Catholic Church is appealing for calm. The opposition party is crying electoral fraud, while roaming gangs armed with clubs are attacking marchers. The mayor has called it anarchy. And everyone is asking: What is President Daniel Ortega after?
This sounds more like the Central America of the 1980s. But Ortega, the former Marxist revolutionary comandante who returned to the president's office in 2006, is at the center of a chaotic new struggle. Critics charge that he and Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America, are marching backward, away from relatively peaceful, transparent, democratic elections to ones that are violent, shady and stolen.
The Nov. 9 elections and their disputed results — for 146 mayoralties, including that of Managua, the capital — have become a crucial test for the Sandinista National Liberation Front and Ortega, its leader, who seeks to consolidate his power in Nicaragua and enhance his standing as a founder of the "pink tide" of left-leaning governments flowing across Latin America. In the months leading to the vote, Ortega and the Sandinistas cracked down on their critics and revived old antagonisms between the United States and the former revolutionaries.
Preliminary results give the majority of victories to Sandinistas, but the opposition is demanding a recount overseen by impartial observers.
"This election has everything to do with whether Nicaragua remains a democratic nation or not," said Francisco Aguirre, a former ambassador to the United States and an opposition leader. "Something is rotten in the state of Nicaragua. They say we don't want the gringos to sort it out for us. Okay. The Europeans then. Or Latin American observers. But they didn't want anyone looking into this mess, because it stinks."
Ortega has not spoken publicly about the elections. Diplomats in Managua suspect that he is waiting to see whether the opposition folds.
Today's Sandinistas are a diluted power, struggling to uphold socialist ideals in a country that has one of the highest degrees of income inequality in the world, where half the population lives below the poverty line. Many Sandinista supporters, including much of the diminished middle class and many intellectuals, have decamped for other parties. Ortega's old comrades are now his most vociferous critics.
"As a traditional revolutionary, Ortega is into the conspiracy theory that the United States is behind all this. But the reality is he is not very popular. He is losing control, and that is dangerous," said Edmundo Jarquin, a former ally and now a leader of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, an opposition party. "He assumed he could steal the election and we would surrender."
Asked Ortega's primary objective, Edmundo Jarquin, a former ally and now a leader of an opposition party, replied, "Ortega."
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Nicaragua elections testing democracy