MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — AT the end of a hotly contested campaign fought more with images than ideas, opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro made her final entrance into the Plaza of the Revolution on Sunday with all the snow-white imagery of a saint. The fragile, silver-haired widow reclined on top of a shining white parade float that closely resembles the ``Pope-mobile'' used by Pope John Paul II. There is no bullet-proof plexiglass around the ``Violeta-mobile,'' however, so admirers could hand her babies for a blessing or touch the sleeves of her elegant white dress.
When she was finally lifted in a wheelchair up to the platform, Mrs. Chamorro - wife of martyred newspaper editor Pedro Joaqu'in Chamorro - spoke to nearly 50,000 followers from the National Opposition Union (UNO) in the simple, moralistic tones she favors.
``There will soon be an end to the dark night of the Sandinistas,'' she told the audience, gathered in a plaza adorned with enormous portraits of the Sandinistas' revolutionary heroes. ``Next Sunday the people's vote will knock down the Sandinistas' wall of shame just as the people of East Germany knocked down the wall in Berlin.''
Dona Violeta, as she is universally known, has been a reluctant symbol in Nicaragua ever since her husband's 1978 murder turned the tide against dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and helped the Sandinista Front storm their way into power.
Today, despite her physical ailments and political weaknesses, Chamorro is at the center of the most robust political opposition ever to exist in Nicaragua, where political change has traditionally been determined by violence rather than votes. And she is leading the crusade against the same Sandinistas with whom she had collaborated - and then separated - in the afterglow of the revolution.
``This [campaign] is no longer just political; it is religious,'' says Emilio Alvarez Montalvan, a leading member of the UNO political council. ``Dona Violeta has become some kind of a saint. People think she can do miracles.''
But with just a few days remaining before the election, it is not clear whether she can pull off the biggest miracle of all: an opposition victory.
According to a range of opposition leaders, foreign diplomats, and even Sandinista strategists, the UNO has finished the campaign with a flourish that may put it within striking distance of the front-running Sandinistas.
But in the end, analysts say, the loose coalition parties may have a hard time overcoming a five-month campaign bogged down by personal rivalries, political divisions, and an inability to shape the electoral debate in the face of a well-oiled Sandinista campaign.
The UNO seems custom-made for confusion. Born of 14 political parties ranging from conservative to communist, the coalition has had to overcome enormous differences to forge a platform and choose a candidate.
Chamorro, an outsider with few ideological conviction, has been largely successful in keeping the various parties under the blue and white UNO banner. But so many new tensions have arisen between UNO's traditional politicians and Chamorro's coterie of trusted advisors (most of them relatives) that it has raised questions about UNO's ability to govern if elected - and its ability to survive as a coherent opposition if defeated.
The UNO has tried to focus its campaign on the two issues that have hurt Nicaraguans most during the past decade of Sandinista rule: the military draft, and the economic crisis.
Both issues have had a powerful attraction in this war-battered nation of 3.7 million inhabitants. But even the UNO's own admission, the campaign has failed to turn the devastating economic crisis into as much of a political advantage as opposition leaders had hoped. With inflation still hovering around 2000 percent, unemployment soaring, and the country's dependence on foreign aid deeper than ever, says one diplomat, ``I'm surprised the UNO didn't go more for the economic jugular.''
Many voters will still turn to the UNO for economic reasons, but the Sandinista Front has been able to turn the focus of the campaign away from the economy onto the more airy issues of peace and stability.
``This is the campaign of a country coming out of a war,'' says Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of the Sandinista's official newspaper Barricada, which has been highly critical of his mother's candidacy. ``The issues are very simple: peace and stability or a return to the past.''
It is not only that the Sandinistas have orchestrated campaign fiestas that dance around the economic issue. Nor is it just that the United States has inadvertently boosted the Sandinista campaign with its invasion of Panama last December, its continued support for the still active contra rebels, and its confused handling of a $9 million aid package to the opposition.
But the Sandinista Front had already taken away the UNO platform by implementing an orthodox economic reform last year that did nearly everything the opposition proposes.
Some UNO leaders, however, blame the campaign itself. ``We failed to put enough emphasis on the economic debate,'' Luis Humberto Guzm'an, an UNO congressional candidate and the editor of Cr'onica, perhaps the most balanced newspaper in the country. ``We should have confronted the Sandinistas more on the issues.