Nicaragua’s main opposition alliance has named a former right-wing fighter and a beauty queen as its candidates to take on President Daniel Ortega in November’s general election.
The Citizens Alliance for Liberty’s (CXL) announcement on Wednesday comes amid a wave of arrests of opposition figures, with more than two dozen people – including seven presidential hopefuls – arrested during the past two months.
Oscar Sobalvarro, 68, said he did not expect the nomination but insisted that he would “take on the baton” from those detained, a move he said “is neither easy nor free from risks”.
His running mate is 27-year-old Berenice Quezada, the 2017 Miss Nicaragua who has no known history of political activism.
Rights groups and international observers have accused Ortega of presiding over a crackdown on potential opponents in advance of the November vote, during which the 75-year-old will be seeking a fourth consecutive term.
Among those arrested by the Ortega government are five CXL leaders who were expected to compete for the presidential candidacy, as well as student protest leaders and other opposition figures in the Central American nation.
The United States has imposed sanctions and visa restrictions on officials affiliated with Ortega’s government, while the Organization of American States (OAS) has urged him to release the detainees and ensure that free and fair elections can be held.
The longtime president has justified the arrests by saying his administration was prosecuting criminals who were plotting a coup against him. Most have been arrested under a controversial law approved by parliament in December that was widely criticised as a means of freezing out challengers and silencing opponents.
In a speech at a public event on Sunday, Ortega slammed the country’s opposition figures, saying they were part of a “Yankee policy” and that the opposition “has no shame”.
“They don’t deserve to even be called Nicaraguans … The empire uses them and when they win, kicks them out, too,” said Ortega, who repeatedly referred to the US as “the empire” during his address.
“The empire does not want elections in Nicaragua, the empire wants to boycott them, it wants to re-sow terrorism in our country,” he said.
But civil society and human rights groups have accused the 75-year-old – who governed Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 and returned to power in 2007, winning two successive re-election bids since then – of increasing authoritarianism.
CXL will be the main opposition to Ortega and his vice president and wife, Rosario Murrillo, 70, who represent the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), in November’s election.
Sobalvarro is a former member of the Contras, a right-wing rebel group that was backed by the US and fought a three-year armed struggle against the Sandinista government led by Ortega in the 1980s.
The announcement of the CXL presidential ticket at a hotel in the capital Managua was greeted by hundreds of supporters chanting “Yes you can”, “Freedom” and “Freedom for political prisoners”, while dozens of riot police surrounded the building.