NICARAGUA'S electoral process got off to a good start back in October, with some 90 percent of eligible voters registering. United Nations observers and others praised that part of the process. Now that the campaign has officially started, however, things have turned nasty. Gangs of young thugs, apparently connected to the ruling Sandinista party, have taken to disrupting opposition rallies. Wielding machetes and flinging stones, they've provoked all-out battles. Observers are expressing doubts that a fair election can be held in such circumstances.
But a fair election on Feb. 25 is crucial to the establishment of peace in Central America. The present government of Nicaragua knows this, and it knows that every event in the country is under an international lens. Therefore it's difficult to fathom why the Sandinistas are allowing the political rowdiness. One assumes President Daniel Ortega Saavedra could stop it if he wanted to. Is the opposition so strong that a policy of intimidation is worth the risks?
In fact, the Sandinistas continue to have tremendous advantages, including dominance of the Nicaraguan media and the ability to transport people to rallies. US money had been promised to help the opposition set up offices, but it has been slow in coming. Still, opinion polls within Nicaragua indicate that opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro is about even with her Sandinista opponent, and lots of voters are still undecided. Mr. Ortega may have cause to worry.
Ortega last week signed a regional agreement calling for the demobilization of both the Nicaraguan contras and El Salvador's FMLN insurgents. This despite his fraternal relationship with the Salvadoran rebels. But his hopes to see an end to the contras may hinge largely on Nicaragua's ability to hold a verifiably fair election. Without that, the United States isn't likely to join in dismantling the anti-Sandinista army it nurtured.
Steps need to be taken now to east the militancy within the country so that voters can make up their minds freely.
Even if the election comes off, tough questions will remain. How will a victorious opposition deal with an army still under Sandinista control? Should the Sandinistas win fairly, how will the US deal with that situation? Will trade embargoes be lifted and efforts be made to help rebuild the Nicaraguan economy?
The immediate question, however, is whether the violence tainting the campaign can be stopped. If it's given free rein, there will be ample reason to claim that the election, whatever the outcome, was bogus. That would be a tragedy for the whole region.