Nicaragua's political topography is easy to describe: A few isolated hills, representing opposition parties, dot the landscape. They are dwarfed by a towering chain of mountains -- the Sandinista National Liberation Front and its allied mass organizations. To Vice-President Sergio Ram'irez Mercado, the very fact of an open and vociferous opposition is evidence of the political pluralism that the Sandinistas pledged to uphold when they swept to power in the 1979 revolution.
``If after six years of revolution, 11 parties still exist,'' Vice-President Ram'irez told reporters last year. ``The important thing is not their strength but the fact that they exist and that they can participate in political discussion.''
But under the five-month-old state of emergency, ``pluralism is enormously limited,'' complains opposition leader Virgilio Godoy Reyes, president of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI).
``We are allowed to exist only in a nominal way,'' Mr. Godoy argues, since demonstrations are banned ``and censorship prevents us from presenting our ideas properly.''
``The point is,'' says a Western diplomat, ``that the Sandinistas are driving this bus. They don't mind people who disagree with them sitting in the back seats, but the passengers must not tell the driver when to change gear.''
``The Sandinistas do not wish to be repressive,'' he adds, ``but if people don't sit quietly, they are prepared to be [repressive].''
The government explained the state of emergency, which suspended a wide range of civil liberties last October, as a move to defend Nicaragua against an ``internal front'' that United States-backed ``contra'' rebels were seeking to establish.
However, the Sandinistas' firm grip on the country's political life was clear well before worries about a subversive ``fifth column'' emerged.
In the National Assembly, elected in November 1984, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) controls 63 percent of the vote, and has 61 seats. The rest is split among six smaller parties of both left and right.
Against that overwhelming majority, says Godoy, the opposition's role is ``practically nil.'' This, he acknowledges, is especially true because Sandinista party discipline is far superior to anything that the Independent Liberal Party, the Democratic Conservative Party, or any other opposition group can mount.
But even had the opposition won more of the 96 Assembly seats, observers point out, their power would scarcely be stronger since President Daniel Ortega Saavedra also has the authority to legislate with or without the Assembly's approval. The national budget, for example, is not subject to Assembly debate.
The Assembly's main task over its first year of existence has been to draw up the draft of a new constitution, which will be discussed in a nationwide series of community meetings over the next four months.
Nicaragua's 1974 Constitution, which provided for a presidential-congressional system of government, was suspended when the FSLN took power in July 1979. A month later a Bill of Rights was published which guaranteed individual freedoms and freedom of the press. But in 1982, the Sandinistas imposed a state of emergency and suspended many civil liberties.
Presenting the document last month, Assembly President Carlos Nunez, one of the nine Sandinista comandantes, urged all political parties to join in this grassroots review. But the PLI and two leftist parties had already withdrawn from the Assembly's constitutional debate because, according to Godoy, ``it was going nowhere, just imposing a proposal that had already been decided [by the FSLN].''
This reflects a widespread criticism by opposition politicians that they are allowed no real role in important decisions, which are handed down by the nine-man Sandinista directorate after discussion within the FSLN, which is hidden from public view. Accounts of differences among the Sandinista leadership rarely slip out. When they do, they reveal no evidence of serious divisions over the overall direction the revolution should take.
``Of course there are elements of friction within the [nine-man Sandinista] National Directorate,'' suggests the Western diplomat. ``But there is agreement on the general idea that what is wanted is socialism ``a la Nicaragua,' in which the Sandinistas have a monopoly of power.''
The nature of that socialism is hotly debated both inside and outside Nicaragua. The comandantes themselves insist that first and foremost they are Sandinistas -- the name they took from Augusto C'esar Sandino, who led the struggle against US military occupation of Nicaragua in the late 1920s and early '30s in the name of social justice and anti-imperialism.
And while some Sandinista leaders are avowed Marxists, their opponents on the left, in the communist Socialist Party of Nicaragua (PSN) and the Maoist ``Popular Action Party'' (MAP) never cease to decry the government's maintenance of a mixed economy as ``bourgeois revisionism.''
``The Sandinista revolution has not evolved clearly enough a long Marxist lines,'' complains PSN Secretary Gen. Gustavo Dablado.
Some foreign political analysts attribute this to the strength of President Ortega's pragmatism, and his skill at mediating arguments among his colleagues. ``He has great patience in convincing other people'' says Vice-President Ram'irez of Ortega's reputation as a moderator.
At the same time, Ortega is also a first among equals -- the nine men who make up the Sandinista National Directorate and reach decisions by consensus.
This unique system, however, has led to a blurring of the line between party and state, observers point out, for the Directorate fulfills a dual function as the highest authority for both the FSLN and the nation.
And national institutions such as the Army, the police, and the state television network all bear the name ``Sandinista.''
Yet opposition leader Godoy has not given up hope. ``The government,'' he says, ``is strongly authoritarian, and tending towards totalitarianism, but it is not totalitarian.''
Placing his faith in what he calls ``the Nicaraguan people's enormous will for democracy,'' Godoy says that ``we may be able to reverse the current trends. The picture is very dark, but it is not black.'' Second in series. Next: Nicaragua's economy.