Ms. Murillo, 65, whose thin face is framed by a cascade of black curls, is known for her eccentricity as well as her influence. She sports multiple rings, bracelets and necklaces, many of them adorned with turquoise. She has erected about 140 multicolored metal "trees of life," which light up at night, giving the capital a surreal Christmas-season feel year round.

Mr. Ortega rarely ventures out during the day. By contrast, Ms. Murillo is a constant, if ethereal presence. Every day around noon, the first lady phones in to the state television station and delivers a long, whispery monologue that touches on everything from the weather to tidbits of news.

In 2009, the Supreme Court eliminated the limit of one five-year presidential term.European observers said Mr. Ortega's 2011 re-election was fraught with problems, including "systemic and massive" use of public funds for the Sandinistas. He won with 62% of the vote.

Mr. Ortega could win by an even larger margin this time around. In late June, the country's Supreme Court unexpectedly ruled in a case that had been dormant for six years. The court wrested away control of Nicaragua's main opposition party from Mr. Ortega's main foe, ensuring he wouldn't face any credible opposition.

The National Assembly, controlled by Mr. Ortega's party, in July used the Supreme Court decision as backing to unseat 28 of the most combative opposition lawmakers.

Mr. Ortega has refused to invite election observers, calling them "shameless."

"It's taking the country towards a totalitarianism we've seen before," says farmer and cattleman Michael Healey, who heads the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua, a majorfarm group.

In late July, a Wall Street Journal reporter was held and interrogated at the airport when leaving the country by a national police officer. Authorities had spied on the reporter's visits to the public property registry and on meetings with opposition politicians. The officer said the interrogation was due to rising "political tension" ahead of the vote.

The absence of electoral excitement is noteworthy in Managua, where recent polls have been raucous affairs, marked by earsplitting outdoor rallies and noisy car honking caravans. This time, all is quiet.

"That's because there are no real elections," says Sergio Ramirez, Nicaragua's best known novelist, who served as vice president during Mr. Ortega's first term from 1985 to 1990 before turning against him.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 04, 2016 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)

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