By Enrique Pretel
LA LIBERTAD, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Ten years ago, less than a third of voters in President Daniel Ortega's mining hometown backed him, but his support has since surged here and nationally, setting him up to win a third consecutive term this week despite criticism he is autocratic.
When he ran for a second term in 2011, the Sandinista leader won handily in La Libertad, as the small mining town embraced his dramatic shift from Marxist guerilla to a pro-business champion who has brought solid economic growth to Nicaragua, Latin America's second-poorest country.
Now, aged 70, La Libertad's native son looks certain to win an election on Sunday, lauded by voters who enjoy some of the lowest crime levels in Central America and appear unfazed by opposition warnings that Ortega's tight grip on the levers of power mark a slide toward despotism.
A poll published by M&R Consultants on Tuesday showed 69.8 percent of those surveyed planned to vote for Ortega and his leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party, compared with 8.1 percent for right-wing opposition candidate Maximino Rodriguez.
In 2006, Ortega barely convinced voters that the return of a Cold War icon who boasted close ties to Venezuela, Russia and Iran - after more than a decade out of power - would not mark a renewal of spiraling inflation and instability.
Instead, helped by exports, foreign investment and multi-lateral loans, Nicaragua's GDP per capita has gone from $1,245 the year of Ortega's election to $2,087 in 2015, a rise of more than 67 percent, according to World Bank data.
"He built roads and houses here and made a lot of progress. He loves the people," said Marlon Laguna, a 57-year-old butcher proudly displaying photos of a young Ortega. "Since he got into power, things have been better in Nicaragua."
Others fear Ortega's sway over the courts, police and armed forces will make it hard to change governments when the country tires of him. The United States and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights criticize Ortega's government for not accepting international election observers.
After elevating relatives to key government posts and changing the constitution to remove presidential term limits, he is accused by rivals of installing a dynasty, much like the 43-year rein of the Somoza family Ortega helped topple in 1979.
The growing role of Rosario Murillo, the first lady, communications tsar and now Ortega's running mate, has proved particularly divisive.
"Somoza's greatest student is Ortega," said Oscar Rene Vargas, a former ally and adviser to Ortega. "Ortega is a smart man and will give congressional seats to various parties so it appears there is no dictatorship - just like Somoza did."
Good times have been rare in La Libertad. The city was hurt by the Sandinistas' nationalization of the mining industry after Somoza's ouster, and later by a civil war, which pitted Ortega's leftists against the right-wing, U.S.-financed Contras.
So like much of the country, La Libertad eyed with skepticism Ortega's 2007 return, in which he won just 38 percent of the vote nationally.
That year, the main firm operating in the region, Central Sun Mining, collapsed amid the global financial crisis and La Libertad was left waiting to see if a new company would take interest in its huge gold deposits.
Then, in 2010, Ortega visited La Libertad bearing good news. He came with Canadian miner B2Gold to announce an investment of $70 million to restart mining operations. He also inaugurated 34 kilometers (21 miles) of road financed by the World Bank, fulfilling a pledge to locals who had been waiting decades for better infrastructure.
The town has also benefited from the more than $3.5 billion in food, low-interest credit and other types of direct support Venezuela has pumped into Nicaragua since 2007 to alleviate poverty, funds that helped improve education, sanitation and gender equality. Critics say this bonanza has served to enrich businesses close to Ortega.
Gains such as those in La Libertad were reflected in the 2011 election results, in which 60 percent of voters chose the former fighter, despite allegations of electoral fraud from the opposition and criticism from international observers.
This time too, Nicaragua's opposition accuses Ortega of twisting the election by controlling electoral and judicial authorities and forcing his strongest rival out of the race. But there is little doubt that he is the country's most popular politician.
In the face of Ortega's commanding lead, adversaries are weak and divided. Some want to fight at the polls at all costs, while others say voters must abstain in a protest against electoral fraud.
Nicaragua remains painfully poor, but across the country there are signs of prosperity, with new developments, hotels and shopping malls cropping up, and imported cars filling the roads.
"It's progress," said Carlos Romer, a 46-year old soldier who attended an Ortega rally in Ciudad Sandino near the capital Managua with his wife and two daughters, explaining his support for the aging president.
"We used to have blackouts, no education programs, nowhere to turn for health care. Now they care for us."
With few other options, even those less fond of Ortega concede he has helped improve the situation.
"We have to recognize that some things are better," said Claudia Escobar, a marketing specialist walking through a new port on the lake in Managua. "But I don't like Ortega and when we want to take him out of power, we won't be able to, just like the Venezuelans."
(Additional reporting by Ivan Castro; Writing by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Dan Grebler)