By Ivan Castro and Enrique Pretel
MANAGUA (Reuters) - Former Marxist guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega is expected to easily clinch a third consecutive term as president of Nicaragua on Sunday, buoyed by steady economic growth that has trumped fears he is trying to install autocratic family rule.
Ortega and his running mate, his wife Rosario Murillo, have nearly 70 percent support, according to a recent poll, tapping into strong voter approval for a drop in poverty in one of the poorest countries in the Americas since he took office in 2007.
"He (Ortega) is the only person who has worked for the poor, and he will keep doing it, because that is his essence," said Jose Vicente Pong, a 64-year-old retiree, casting his vote by the ministry of labor in Managua on Sunday morning. "He comes from poverty, and he'll keep working for the poor."
Emerging as leader of the Sandinista movement that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, Ortega served one term as president in the 1980s before being sidelined for years.
By the time he won Nicaragua's 2006 election, he had moved far enough from his Marxist roots to talk about Jesus Christ in his speeches.
Opponents have accused Ortega of trying to set up a "family dictatorship" since he appointed relatives to key posts, and after his Sandinistas pushed constitutional changes through Congress that ended presidential term limits in 2014.
"Ortega gets his way and he doesn't care if he violates the rights of others," said Maximino Rodriguez, candidate of the center-right Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), Ortega's closest rival polling just 8 percent support.
"Supposedly he fought against the Somoza dictatorship, and the Sandinistas themselves regard Ortega as worse than Somoza," he added, arguing Ortega was just trying to cling to power.
There is certainly no obvious challenger.
The opposition has been in disarray since Pedro Reyes used the courts to wrest leadership of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), the main group, from Eduardo Montealegre in June.
PLI congressmen who refused to accept the decision, calling Reyes a puppet of Ortega, were dismissed.
Hernan Selva, a 22-year-old engineering student and Ortega supporter, dismissed as "the kicks of a drowning man" the complaints by Rodriguez, who fought the Sandinistas in the 1980s as part of a right-wing paramilitary force known as the Contras.
U.S. and international organizations voiced concern about Montealegre's ouster and Ortega's refusal to host international observers for the vote. Still, the World Bank acknowledges that under Ortega, poverty has fallen almost 13 percentage points.
Ortega, who has made few campaign appearances, has promised to defend his social and economic achievements if he wins.
A substantial part of those gains have been funded by Venezuelan petrodollars that have underpinned social programs, helped private business, and slashed energy costs.
Ortega has also forged alliances with entrepreneurs, helping Nicaragua to achieve average growth of 5 percent in the past five years, buttressed by high prices for its meat, coffee and gold exports, as well as remittances and foreign investment.
Despite some ups and downs, Ortega and U.S. President Barack Obama have maintained a relatively cordial relationship, demonstrating 70-year-old Ortega's dramatic shift from a leftist firebrand to a diplomat who maintains ties with a Cold War foe.
But democracy remains a touchy subject.
A U.S. bill known as the Nica Act seeks to condition financial assistance to Nicaragua on improvements in democracy, human rights, and battling anti-corruption, leading Ortega's government to decry "interference" from Washington in September.
(Additional reporting by Enrique Pretel; Writing by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Simon Gardner, Andrew Hay and Ros Russell)