MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Nicaraguans voted Sunday in elections expected to return one-time Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega as president in what critics say could be the prelude to a presidency for life.
Since returning to power in 2007, the 65-year-old Ortega has boosted his popularity in Central America's poorest country with a combination of pork-barrel populism and support for the free-market economy he once opposed.
Now, riding on a populist platform and World Bank praise for his economic strategies, he seeks a third term -- his second consecutive one -- after the Sandinista majority on the Supreme Court overruled the term limits set by the Nicaraguan constitution.
With nearly 50 percent of voter support and an 18-point lead over his nearest challenger in the most recent poll, Ortega could end up with a mandate that would not only legitimize his re-election but allow him to make constitutional changes guaranteeing perpetual re-election.
He leads his closest competitor, opposition radio station owner Fabio Gadea of the Liberal Independent Party, by 18 points. Conservative Arnoldo Aleman, a former president and perennial candidate, has 11 percent support in the poll taken between Oct. 10-17 with a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.
"I'm going to win the presidency," Gadea said as he voted in a school in southern Managua, adding that he had been informed of many voting irregularities.
Nicaraguan electoral and police officials said voting was taking place normally Sunday.
But the head of the Organization of American States observer mission, Dante Caputo, said its observers have been denied access to 10 polling stations, which would account for 20 percent of the statistical material they had planned to collect for their analysis.
"They have prevented our people from being there at the precise moment they should have been there, and that is not remediable and will affect our ability to do our jobs," Caputo said. "We are left without radar."
Claims of widespread fraud in the 2008 municipal elections led Washington to cancel $62 million in development aid.
Ortega led the Sandinista movement that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, and withstood a concerted effort by the U.S. government, which viewed him as a Soviet-backed threat, to oust him through a rebel force called the Contras.
The fiery, mustachioed leftist ruled through a junta, then was elected in 1984 but was defeated after one term in 1990. After two more failed runs, he softened his rhetoric, took a free-market stance, and regained the presidency in the 2006 election.
To his supporters, he is just plain Daniel, while opponents say that in his new incarnation, he has espoused "Orteguismo," a politics of personality based on Christianity, socialism and free enterprise.
In his most recent term, Ortega has built wide support among the youth and the poor in a country of 5.8 million people, more than 40 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day.
He also has maintained ties to the U.S. even as he has grown closer to Venezuelan socialist President Hugo Chavez, signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement and cultivated Nicaragua's large business sector. Per capita income, one of the lowest in Latin America, has grown steadily since 2006, according to the World Bank, which has praised Ortega's macroeconomic policies as "broadly favorable."
Still, he has been helped immensely by Chavez, who according to estimates has provided at least $500 million a year in discounted oil and outright donations.
If the left seemed to be rolling in Nicaragua on Sunday, relatively conservative candidates were dominating elections in nearby Guatemala, which suffered an even bloodier civil war from 1960 to 1996.
Polls showed Otto Perez Molina, 61, a retired general and former military intelligence director at least 10 points ahead of Manuel Baldizon, a 41-year-old tycoon turned political populist.
More than half of Guatemala's 14 million people live in poverty and it has one of the highest murder rates in the world, a product of gang and cartel violence, along with the legacy of its civil war.
Perez would be the first former military leader elected president in Guatemala since the end of military rule 25 years ago. His campaigning focused on fighting the street gangs and cartels.
Nicaragua's 2006 election drew more than 18,000 observers. This time election observation is much more difficult and local observers were denied credentials. The OAS and the European Union negotiated access to Sunday's vote, but the Georgia-based Carter Center decided not to observe because of the restrictions.