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If Sandinistas Lose, Can the Winner Rule? : Nicaragua: Never in the nation's history has a governing party turned over power in peace. Civil war resumes even as the election proceeds.

November 12, 1989|Art Seidenbaum | Art Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — The big question--whether elections will proceed, can proceed, in the midst of civil war--may be the easiest one to answer in this nation of economic chaos and political contradictions. Everybody seems to expect that the voting for president, Assembly and municipal offices will occur on schedule, Feb. 25, 1990.

Whether those elections will be free and fair is a tougher question. Even now, with a U.N. observer team in place and an Organization of American States team prepared to conduct a parallel count of the ballots, many citizens are afraid that the combatants--with their weapons and their intimidating presence--cannot be kept out of the polling places.

Then comes the most perilous question of all. Assuming an election that produces a winner in a nation where no sitting government has ever turned over power peacefully, there is no assurance that either side will accept the result.

When President Daniel Ortega took his Sandinistas back to war against the Contra insurgency at the end of October, a world of speculation opened up outside Nicaragua. One school of political thought said the Sandinistas were using Contra incidents or Contra infiltrations from across the Honduran border as a pretext for calling off or postponing elections. One class within that school expected the Sandinistas to declare a new state of emergency that would disrupt or destroy the opposition campaign. Cynics suggested that the Sandinistas never intended to pursue the democratic process anyway. Why would a leftist regime, having won a military revolution, risk losing power at the polling place?

Inside Managua, such speculation looks wrong. Vice President Sergio Ramirez claims to welcome the elections, predicting a 60% majority for his Sandinistas. Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Hugo Tinoco, the man Ortega sent to lead a Sandinista delegation to the United Nations last week, insists that his party enjoys huge support no matter what the surveys by outside pollsters show. And Alfredo Cesar, a spokesman for the National Opposition Union (UNO), also expects that elections will take place.

The Sandinistas and the Violeta Chamorro-led UNO forces share some other areas of agreement: that the contest is now polarized between the two parties; that other opposition groups may not win a combined 2% of the electorate; that the countries of Central America can only advance through regional cooperation--and that right now, Nicaragua is in terrible economic shape.

This capital city is a concrete junkyard, unfinished buildings standing vacant since the 1972 earthquake, a testimony to the greed and despotism of former dictator Anastasio Somoza. The great quasi-colonial cathedral lost its roof then and today sits open to the sky, a garden of weeds growing up to the altar. The Inter-Continental Hotel has a swimming pool, boxing on cable TV from the United States and drinkable water--but no tourist trade.

Soon after the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, Nicaragua was enjoying the highest growth rate in Latin America. Today, 40% of the gross national product has been wrecked by war. Consumption is down 70%. Because of hyper-inflation, real wages are about 7% of what they were less than a decade ago. People who manage two meals a day consider themselves fortunate.

"This is not Ethiopia," insisted Father Xabier Gorostiaga, a Jesuit who runs a regional economic research organization. A Sandinista economist agreed: "You cannot improve housing and health care and education--you cannot implement huge projects--while prosecuting a war."

The Sandinistas blame the United States--for national poverty, for preventing outside financial aid from reaching Nicaragua, for imposing a trade embargo and for funding the Contra military insurgency. The UNO opposition blames the Sandinistas for mismanagement, for destroying initiative in the process of removing--then restoring--elements of the private sector and for forcing some of the best minds to seek refugee status. Gorostiaga, with strong ties to the Sandinistas, conceded that "if political life were normalized, then economic life could be normalized." Ideally sited Nicaragua could then get on with the dream of opening a "second Panama Canal" across the Central American isthmus.

A few signs of political normalizing enhance the chances for peaceful elections. More than 87% of the voting-age population--nearly 2 million people--has registered at 4,400 polling places throughout the country. The U.N. observation group, invited by the Sandinistas, will have 160 poll-watchers in place by election day, covering more than 60% of the voting locations. The OAS team, working with the U.N. group, reports that while there have been 350 complaints about voting procedures, neither side has yet committed any serious infractions.

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