OVER the years, on trips with the contra rebels inside Nicaragua and in their Honduran base camps, this reporter has asked numerous foot soldiers and commandantes why they were fighting. ``For democracy'' and because of ``the lack of liberty'' in Nicaragua are the inevitable answers.
But when pressed for specifics, the reply almost invariably is: ``To work for whom we want, to grow what we want, and to sell it to whom we want for the price we choose.''
Such are the answers of peasants, who make up the bulk of contra forces, not politicians. (Many farmers joined the contras out of disillusionment with the government's socialist economic policies.) They do not mention free elections; they do not mention press restrictions or censorship; and they do not call for breaking up the Sandinistas' state-party-Army apparatus - a key demand of the contras' exiled political leaders.
In fact, 10 years after the overthrow of the repressive Somoza dicatatorship, it is rarely that the average Nicaraguan focuses on democratic institutions or rights when denouncing the revolutionary government. To those disenchanted with the ruling Sandinista Front, economics rather than politics has been of paramount importance.
But now that the United States-funded contra war is on hold, the debate over what constitutes democracy is gaining momentum.
For the opposition, the root of the problem is the Sandinistas' near-total political control.
``What you have here is an armed party which controls the government and the Army,'' says Emilio Alvarez, a Conservative Party member. ``How can we compete as a political party when one party is armed and we are not?''
The Sandinista Front is led by the nine commandantes of the National Directorate, the foremost decisionmaking body in the country. Even President Daniel Ortega Saavedra cannot contravene the directorate's political line.
What troubles the opposition is that the directorate is not elected or answerable to anyone, ``yet they make the most important policy decisions in the country and all ... in total secrecy,'' says a European diplomat.
In their defense, the Sandinistas cite their win at the last elections and their majority in the National Assembly.
But President Ortega has also said repeatedly that if the Sandinistas were to lose an election they ``would give up office but not power.''
``.. if we were to win the presidency, most of the Army officers would be loyal first to the front, and second to the president,'' says Mauricio Diaz, leader of the Popular Social Christian Party. ``How do you rule under such circumstances?''
``Elections only touch on part of the problem of the distribution of political power,'' says an informed European observer who has close contacts with both the Sandinistas and the opposition.
``The revolution is the context for the whole country. And the Sandinistas are most identified with that revolution,'' the observer say.
His explanation hints at part of the reason behind the Sandinistas' reticence to give up power: ``The right wing [opposition] still will not accommodate themselves to what is essentially a social revolution ... so the Sandinistas believe there is a faction which would actively try to overturn the tenets of the revolution if [it] won an election.''
According to this observer, what Nicaragua lacks more than the formal structures of democracy is a state of law - ``the lack of an independent arbitrator between the state and the party and individuals.''
Other diplomats, opposition figures, and even some Sandinistas second this view. One example of this lack was a case of a land confiscation in November 1987. When the Supreme Court overruled the Ministry of Agrarian Reform over the confiscation of a property known as La Virdona, Ortega over-ruled the court and asked for the top judge's resignation. The judge resigned, and the government seized the land.
``Of course,'' the European observer adds, ``the adversaries of the Sandinistas have little love for a state of law when it means working three days a week in a committee in the National Assembly to bring it about. They'd rather protest violently to the foreign press than do the hard, tedious, but necessary work.''
Remedying this deficiency is a top demand of many opposition figures.
``We cannot accept living under a state which does not fix the rules of the game, the political game,'' says Alfredo C'esar, a former contra leader who returned to Nicaragua last month to join the opposition Social Democratic Party. ``Fix the same rules for everyone without exception and we can compete for power fairly.''
``The arbitrary use of authority,'' as in the land seizures, ``is the Sandinistas' greatest failure in bringing democracy here,'' says a Latin American ambassador. ``No one will believe them when they make promises anymore ... until there is some way to check their authority.''
The Sandinistas counter that no country allows unbridled democracy and liberty during a war. They point out that they are trying to build democracy from square one under circumstances of great duress because of United States-backed aggression.
``We are trying to build a popular democracy where people share in the decisions concerning their lives,'' says a well-placed Sandinista.
The Sandinista notion of democracy is rooted in the idea of popular participation of the people in the affairs of their country, according to the front's leaders.
Yet the front is based on ``democratic-centralization'' where, the Sandinista official admits,``there can be a lot more centralization than democracy.'' Opinions are solicited from the rank and file but once the ``line'' is fixed by the directorate there can be no public straying from it.
Sources say, however, that this does not prevent vociferous argument even inside the front.
``Now that the war is over,'' says the top Sandinista, ``this will be one of the greatest debates in the front. And I, like many others, am looking forward to it.''