By Ivan Castro
MANAGUA (Reuters) - Nicaragua's election campaign kicked off on Saturday, with President Daniel Ortega the clear favorite to sweep aside a weakened opposition and win a third consecutive term in a Nov. 6 vote.
Ortega, a 70-year-old former guerrilla leader, remains highly popular after nearly a decade in power due to his handling of the economy and a series of social welfare programs that were backed by leftist allies Cuba and Venezuela.
But the political opposition has accused Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party of neutering state institutions and trying to install a dynasty after he announced his wife, Rosario Murillo, would run as his vice presidential candidate.
Murillo previously served as the government's chief spokeswoman.
The United States and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have criticized Ortega's government for failing to accept international election observers, a decision Ortega defended by arguing that he has lost elections in which such monitors failed to recognize irregularities.
The U.S. government has also voiced concerns over efforts by the country's Supreme Court to weaken the opposition Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), in what it called efforts "to limit democratic space."
"We call on the Nicaraguan government to respect the voices of its people and take the steps for fair and transparent elections that permit the full participation of all Nicaraguan citizens, including by allowing opposition parties to operate independently," U.S. Department of State spokesman John Kirby said earlier this month.
Ortega first ruled the country in the 1980s and returned to power in 2007 after a fracture in Nicaragua's right-wing parties.
Although he maintains his anti-imperialist rhetoric, Ortega has consolidated power by striking alliances with the business sector, helping the Central American country maintain an average annual growth rate of 5 percent over the last five years.
The poverty rate has also fallen, tumbling from 42.5 percent of the population in 2009 to 30 percent in 2014.
According to a poll published in late June, Ortega was seen easily winning a third consecutive term, which would keep him in office until 2020. The poll, conducted by M&R Consultants, showed that 65 percent of those surveyed planned to vote for Ortega's FSLN, compared with just 13 percent for the opposition parties.
The Nov. 6 vote will also elect Nicaragua's 90-member National Assembly.
(Editing by Gabriel Stargardter and G Crosse)