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Closing Ranks Against Sandinistas

Agreement on a single candidate gives diverse opposition better chance of success at polls. NICARAGUAN POLITICS

By Brook LarmerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 6, 1989


DURING the past 10 years here, political parties opposed to the Sandinista government have multiplied as fast as mosquitoes in Managua's simmering heat. Until now, the commotion caused by the country's 23 opposition parties has not translated into political clout mainly because competing party leaders refused to work together.

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Until now, the ruling Sandinistas and their powerful party apparatus have run the country with an iron grip, brushing off the pesky parties with ease.

Until now.

On Saturday, the 14 parties of the National Opposition Union (UNO) managed to cobble together a unified ticket for the Feb. 25 presidential elections. While friction emerged in the selection of vice-presidential candidate Virgilio Godoy, there was little dispute over who would be the opposition's pick to take on current President Daniel Ortega Saavedra: Newspaper publisher Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

``The opposition got to the point where, whatever their personal or party differences, they realized that they would not survive unless they stuck together,'' says one European diplomat. ``Before, the Sandinistas laughed at the opposition for fighting with itself. They're not laughing anymore.''

Though widely criticized for her lack of administrative experience and political acumen, Mrs. Chamorro is seen as a right-wing candidate who can unite the fragile opposition coalition and inspire popular sympathy.

Her maternal mystique has led some hopeful supporters to call her the Nicaraguan version of Corazon Aquino. Somewhat like the Filipino leader, Dona Violeta - as she is known throughout Nicaragua - rose to prominence after the 1978 assassination of her husband, hard-hitting publisher Pedro Joaqu'in Chamorro of the opposition newspaper, La Prensa.

Soon after the Sandinistas' July 1979 overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, her husband's lifelong target and nemesis, Chamorro joined the five-person ruling junta. She resigned less than a year later, disillusioned by the Sandinistas' increasing domination of the junta.

Since then, the graceful, maternal figure has dedicated herself, ironically, to her husband's former post at La Prensa, only this time aiming arrows at a left-wing regime.

Armed with such a candidate, the long-fractured opposition hopes it can do what the United States-backed contra army never could: pose a serious challenge to the 10-year-old Sandinista regime.

It won't be easy. Both unity and inspiration will be needed in the UNO's uphill campaign battle against the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Polls show that the state-driven party is favored to win the elections even after presiding over the sharpest economic collapse in the nation's history. Some opposition leaders doubt whether their own coalition has much chance of winning.

But simply agreeing on a ticket marks an important opposition triumph. Before the last elections in 1984, the opposition split over whether to participate - leaving only a weak candidate to challenge President Ortega.

The UNO ticket reflects a desire to maintain internal cohesion while appealing to the mass of nonaligned, apathetic voters who will likely determine the election outcome.

``There was a clear understanding that we couldn't trip up anymore,'' says Alfredo Cesar, a former contra political leader who is now one of Chamorro's most influential advisers. The ticket, he says, is a ``balanced combination that will maintain the unity of the UNO.''