MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — Sinking deeper into poverty and polarized politically, Nicaragua needs a jump-start to the future - something many Nicaraguans hope Sunday's presidential election can offer.
Yet as they enthusiastically sport political paraphernalia or sing at campaign-closing rallies, many Nicaraguans worry that an election they want to be about solidifying peace and reversing an economic slide could mire the country in past battles.
Although the presidential ballot will offer 24 choices, the contest comes down to two front runners: Daniel Ortega Saavedra, who led the country through 11 tumultuous years of Marxist rule following the Sandinista National Liberation Front's 1979 victory over the 40-year-old Somoza family dictatorship; and Arnoldo Alemn, the conservative former mayor of Managua, Nicaragua's capital.
Each candidate's campaign feeds fears about the other - pro-Ortega TV ads show Mr. Alemn's face crumbling away to reveal the right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle behind him. Pro-Alemn ads juxtapose the new, conciliatory, and moderate Ortega with the khaki-clad and Castro-hugging version. "He remains what he's always been," warns a dire voice.
Polls and analysts still give Alemn - the early favorite - the best chance of winning, although Ortega has steadily moved up in public-opinion polls over recent months. The failure of Sunday's top vote-getter to take at least 45 percent of the vote would send the race into a runoff within 45 days.
What concerns many people here is that the stability and improving economic prospects finally embracing Central America could bypass Nicaragua. During the past six years of democracy it began recovering politically from the excesses of back-to-back dictatorships. The country was largely demilitarized, while respect for human rights and democratic principles, such as press freedom, improved.
During the same period Nicaragua slipped deeper into economic misery. Inflation was tamed, but more than half its citizens are jobless or underemployed. The World Bank estimates that 85 percent of children under 14 live in poverty.
"We used to be able to claim the same economic level as Costa Rica, but now here we are behind all our neighbors," says Normn Montenegro, a rural development advisor in Matagalpa, a northern city scarred from the 1980s' civil war that pitted the Sandinistas against the contra resistance.
Alemn supporters do cite progress in the paving of Managua's streets while he was mayor in the early '90s as proof of his superior qualification for the presidency. But given the 3,000 percent inflation and the dictatorial rule Nicaragua endured under the Sandinistas, Ortega has the more negative image to overcome.
In an effort to bolster his claim to be the candidate of national reconciliation, Ortega signed a pact in September with several one-time leaders of the contra resistance. The accord exchanges former-contras' electoral support for three posts in an Ortega cabinet, plus commitments not to reinstate a military draft and to honor land-dispute resolutions reached under current President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
But the pact has done little to draw the support of rank-and-file ex-contras, many of whom live in poverty in the country's mountainous north and maintain a visceral disdain for Ortega.
"It is logical that we could not support a man who says he is a democrat but who led a war against freedom," says Pablo Montenegro, a former contra who at age 15 joined the resistance rather than submitting to the Sandinista Army draft. Now growing coffee and other crops in a cooperative of ex-contras east of Matagalpa, Mr. Montenegro says the ex-contra leaders who signed a pact with the Sandinista candidate were acting in their own personal interests. "But the humble people of the resistance cannot vote for Daniel Ortega."
Others say Ortega is at least right to emphasize reconciliation and national unity. No matter who wins the presidency, the Sandinistas and Alemn's conservative coalition will remain Nicaragua's two main power blocs, analysts say. The government could end up in a stalemate, especially since a recent constitutional reform gives the legislative branch increased powers.
"Any way you slice it, the [Sandinista Front] is going to end up with a big chunk of the National Assembly" in this Sunday's general election, says a Western diplomat. "Combine that with a confrontational, anti-Sandinista president, and what happens? You have paralysis."
As Ortega has moved up in the polls in recent months, Nicaragua's business leaders warned that an Ortega victory would freeze up the economy. "It would at least take a long time to see if the Sandinistas really have changed" their penchant for a centralized economy, says Gerardo Salinas, who heads the Superior Council of Private Businesses. "The result of that wait would be a frozen economy."
For Nicaragua, avoiding paralysis depends on overcoming a divisive past to join forces, people here say. "Our biggest [post-election] challenge will be to achieve the consensus necessary to put into practice an economic program supported by a wide majority," says Carlos Chamorro, a prominent journalist and former Sandinista.
Despite his unabated dislike for the Sandinista leadership, ex-contra Montenegro says Nicaragua can embark on a united march. "We are able to live and work here [in the mountains] with members of the [Sandinista] Front, so I think the same thing is possible across the country."