Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who is running for reelection, shows… (Oswaldo Rivas / Reuters )
Reporting from Mexico City — Presidential election results seemed to indicate clear winners Sunday in Guatemala and Nicaragua, two Central American countries where democracy has been dramatically weakened by violence and political abuse.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega, a one-time Sandinista revolutionary who now professes to be a born-again Christian, looked set to be reelected, based on preliminary results, after eviscerating the constitution to become eligible for a third term.
In Guatemala, retired army Gen. Otto Perez Molina, who had the edge going into Sunday's vote, was well on the way to victory, according to partial results. But Mexican drug cartels have besieged the Guatemalan government, rendering a virtual failed state that neither Perez nor his opponent, businessman-congressman Manuel Baldizon, appeared equipped to reverse.
More than two decades after civil wars devastated Nicaragua and Guatemala and killed tens of thousands of people, pessimism runs deep in both nations.
"The main question today is not what the election result will be, but, rather, what level of legitimacy will be given a reelection achieved under the shadows of a process that was fraudulent from the beginning," Nicaragua's Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a former Sandinista and longtime critic of Ortega, wrote in the magazine he edits.
In Guatemala, political commentator Manuel Villacorta noted: "The people are voting but not choosing. They don't have a truly popular political option."
Scattered violence and irregularities were reported in Nicaragua's vote, including the burning of ballot boxes in a few locations, the denial of voting ID cards to potential voters and the appearance of intimidating Sandinista gangs. Dante Caputo, former Argentine foreign minister and head of the Organization of American States' election monitoring team, complained that his group was denied access to several voting stations.
Ortega, who helped lead the 1979 revolution that ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza, and then fought U.S.-backed Contra rebels throughout the 1980s as part of a Cold War proxy struggle, called on Nicaraguans to "vote without fear."
Ortega retains a solid following among some in the middle and lower classes who have benefited marginally from his government's largesse — financed principally by Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez. And, in contrast to the Sandinista governments he led in the 1980s, Ortega has avoided alienating the business elite.
But most of his former Sandinista associates, plus a wide array of human rights and women's groups, social activists and political moderates, oppose him bitterly. They say he has created a kind of cult of personality, placing himself and his grasp on power above ideology or conviction. Many believe he wants to permanently alter the constitution and set himself up as president-for-life.
"This [election] is about a Nicaragua where democracy is in danger of dying," Sergio Ramirez, vice president under Ortega's first term but now an opponent, said on his website.
The Nicaragua Constitution forbids a person to serve as president more than twice, and from succeeding him or herself. But since his second election as president in 2006 (after an earlier stint, 1984-90) Ortega succeeded in stacking courts and electoral bodies with his supporters. Last year the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, at Ortega's behest, ruled that term limits were unconstitutional, clearing the way for the 65-year-old to run again.
Ortega's opponents in Sunday's race were Fabio Gadea, a media entrepreneur once sent into exile by the Sandinistas, and Arnoldo Aleman, a disgraced former president once jailed for rampant corruption.
In Guatemala, Perez and Baldizon had been engaged in a sharp-elbowed runoff campaign. Perez won the September vote but without the majority necessary to claim the presidency. Both candidates promised to crack down on crime, but neither inspired much confidence, according to pollsters.
The right-wing Perez, 60, commanded troops during Guatemala's 35-year civil war. He has long faced accusations of war crimes against civilians in that conflict, which wiped out entire indigenous communities and ended in 1996. His vow to act with mano dura, or an iron fist, has revived fears of a return to old-style repression.
Perez denies the war crimes charges and says he has no plans to return to army rule. He also has denied reports that he or other military figures are tied to organized crime and drug traffickers.
"Overall, the levels of violence and the threat of allowing the institutional corruption of the country to deepen are the biggest threats to Guatemala's democracy," said Cynthia Arnson, a Latin America expert at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center. "The situation has gotten qualitatively worse over the last several years as narco-violence has spread from Mexico."
Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City and special correspondents Edgard Barberena in Managua, Nicaragua, and Alex Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.