NICARAGUA, which would like to hold itself up as a model government, has a long way to go before it can realistically claim it is offering its citizens a voice in running the government. Merely providing the trappings of an election, without the freedom to conduct a meaningful one, renders the result meaningless.
Nicaragua's announcement that it will hold national elections this November needs to be viewed in perspective. Unless that country makes major changes in its election procedure, this contest for president and a constituent assembly is not in any fashion a real turning to democracy. As things now stand the election will not be freely contested the way elections are in the United States, with two or more candidates vying, on near-equal footing, for each office.
Nicaragua now is essentially a one-party state. Two years ago the Sandinista government enacted the National Emergency Law, which still is in effect. It provides for government censorship of the press and forbids political parties from holding public meetings. There is no way a fair and free election could be held unless the law is repealed.
Many authoritarian governments hold elections which are similar travesties of the democratic process and amount to little more than ratification by the populace of decisions by the oligarchy.
But government official Daniel Ortega Saavedra made no mention of repeal when making the election announcement, and in fact appeared indirectly to reject the possibility of repeal. The US has repeatedly sought free and open elections in Nicaragua, and earlier this month some Sandinista leaders had indicated there would be a relaxation of the emergency law. Yet Mr. Ortega pointedly said ''we don't want the democracy'' that he claimed the US wants to ''impose'' on his country.
Even if the emergency law were to be repealed now, the opposition parties would be significantly disadvantaged in the election, inasmuch as they have been out of effective political circulation for two years.
Ironically, if the Sandinistas were to permit the opposition to organize and campaign freely, the government probably would win anyway: It has considerable popular support. But the backing is not universal. Miskito Indians, as one example, were persecuted by the Sandinistas early in the regime and bitterly oppose it. Several thousand have fled Nicaragua, and some are among the US-backed Contra insurgents who are fighting the government.
Nicaragua's election situation is in considerable contrast to that in embattled El Salvador, which is holding presidential elections next month. In Salvador the two leading candidates are waging a vigorous and open campaign for the presidency, even though the election process is not unflawed.
Nicaragua has made progress in meeting its citizens' material needs. But part of the price is a lack of freedom. The election announcement cannot hide that.