MANAGUA, Nicaragua — President Daniel Ortega has rejected calls for early elections as a solution to Nicaragua's political crisis, which has seen more than 250 people killed amid a heavy-handed crackdown on protests.
Speaking late Saturday in his first public appearance in over a month, Ortega said the Central American country's constitution sets rules that "cannot be changed overnight because of the whim of a group of coup mongers."
He said protesters who are demanding he leave office should "seek the vote of the people" if they want to govern and must respect that his current term runs through 2021.
"We will see if the people will give the vote to the coup mongers who have provoked so much destruction in recent weeks," Ortega said. "There will be time for elections."
The president also blamed those who oppose him for the killings since the onset of protests in April.
However, human rights groups say most of the dead are young protesters killed by police and often-armed civilian groups allied to Ortega's Sandinista political movement.
Government opponents at the mostly student-led protests accuse Ortega of trying to install a dictatorship characterized by corruption and nepotism along with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.
Ortega appeared noticeably thinner than he did in his last public appearance May 30. He spoke to a crowd of supporters and government workers at a "march for peace" in the capital, Managua.
The event was held in place of a traditional march in the city of Masaya that had been celebrated for 38 straight years to commemorate Sandinista resistance to the former Somoza dictatorship. The march was called off this year because much of the city is in open rebellion against Ortega's government.
Ortega, 72, dismissed those seeking his exit as "vandals" and "bands of criminals" who resort to "terrorist tactics to kill your Nicaraguan brothers."
As Ortega spoke in the capital, authorities continued what the government and its supporters have called a "caravan of peace": the removal by force of roadblocks that have paralyzed many highways.
In a homily, Roman Catholic Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes called on Ortega to end those efforts.
"Please, in the name of God, stop that action which will bring more pain, more sadness and, like it or not, this situation is being placed on your shoulders," Brenes said Sunday.
Managua auxiliary Bishop Silvio Jose Baez said Catholic authorities, who have been mediating on-and-off talks, would evaluate whether they can resume this week.
The government "will be the responsible ones if the dialogue is broken off for not having wanted to involve a peaceful exit to this national crisis which they themselves have provoked," Baez said, "and history will judge them as intransigent, lying and arrogant."