Almost four years after the Sandinista revolution, Nicaragua's nominal legislature is mapping the role political parties will play in elections promised for 1985.
Currently, political parties here have little freedom. Political organizing was heavily curtailed last year when the Sandinistas imposed a military state of emergency following a series of sabotage attacks. Parties may meet privately, but they cannot hold public rallies. They may publish internal bulletins, but there is press censorship of mass circulation papers. Police watch the parties closely.
The party law that the legislature, called the Council of State, is beginning to debate earnesty if not heatedly will in principle open up the political process. It is expected to give parties the right to buy television time, to hold demonstrations, to criticize the government, and to participate in elections.
But the parties will not actually be allowed to campaign or announce candidates until 1984. And in fact the very nature of the legislature to which the candidates will be elected has yet to be determined. Debate on that subject is expected to begin in June, following adoption of the political party law.
Behind the debate over the political parties and the form of government is another critical question: Will the Sandinistas actually risk losing their political hegemony in a free and open election?
Most Sandinista leaders seem to think that the situation inside and outside Nicaragua requires such a risk.
The right of any party to win at the ballot box - even if it means the Sandinistas are voted out - is the crux of the issue in the Council of State's debate over the political party law. An early version of a political party bill, drafted by the Sandinistas more than two years ago, said only that parties have the right to participate in public administration. Opposition parties, both Sandinista allies and critics, protested.
The nub of that issue is still being debated in the Council of State chambers , which were ruined in the 1972 earthquake and reconstructed last year.
Dr. Julio Garcia from the Social Christian Party objects that Article 2 of the current bill says, ''Parties have the right to seek power, among other ends.'' He says the clause ''among other ends'' dilutes the main purpose of political parties, which he says is to take power.
Dr. Mariano Fiallos, a council secretary and rector of the National University, points out that parties are often formed to express minority viewpoints and form coalitions.
Council members look like typical legislators: They chat and pass notes as debate drags on. Finally council president Carlos Nunez calls for a vote. The Social Christian motion on wording is voted down. But a move to change another clause, offered by the Constitutional Liberal Party, passes.
Controversial since its founding, the Council of State is made of representatives from political parties, business organizations, trade unions, and citizens groups. The Sandinista junta names the groups allowed to join the council, and the groups select their own representatives.
When the junta created a number of new seats in April 1980, ensuring a majority of pro-Sandinista delegates, junta member Alfonso Robelo Callejas resigned and led his Nicaraguan Democratic Movement party into opposition. Today Robelo, in exile, calls for insurrection against the Sandinistas. Attendance at council meetings by anti-Sandinista parties has been irregular, depending on their relations with the Sandinista Front at any one moment.
The president of the Social Christian Party, Adan Fletes Valle, says Nicaragua could go either toward dictatorship or toward democracy. ''The Sandinista Front has shown intelligence in the past. They could open a democratic aperture without threatening their power,'' says Fletes.
But Jaime Bengoechea, council representative from the Chamber of Industry, says, ''Nicaragua has never had a change of government that did not happen by force.'' Mass political parties have never before existed, he says.
Traditionally, only the Conservative Party had any popular following, primarily because of its opposition to Anastasio Somoza's dictatorship. However, it lost some credibility by acting, some say, like a too loyal opposition to Somoza.
The Sandinista front filled that political vacuum. It gained popularity after its revolution ousted Somoza. It also gained the power of patronage in the new government, and it quickly grew from a small corp of militants to become the largest party.
It sees itself as Marxist and as the representative of the working people. But the Sandinistas know they came to power at the head of a multiclass alliance dedicated to overthrowing Somoza. They wants to maintain the alliance.