DURING the past 10 years here, political parties opposed to the Sandinista government have multiplied as fast as mosquitoes in Managua's simmering heat. Until now, the commotion caused by the country's 23 opposition parties has not translated into political clout mainly because competing party leaders refused to work together.
Until now, the ruling Sandinistas and their powerful party apparatus have run the country with an iron grip, brushing off the pesky parties with ease.
On Saturday, the 14 parties of the National Opposition Union (UNO) managed to cobble together a unified ticket for the Feb. 25 presidential elections. While friction emerged in the selection of vice-presidential candidate Virgilio Godoy, there was little dispute over who would be the opposition's pick to take on current President Daniel Ortega Saavedra: Newspaper publisher Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
``The opposition got to the point where, whatever their personal or party differences, they realized that they would not survive unless they stuck together,'' says one European diplomat. ``Before, the Sandinistas laughed at the opposition for fighting with itself. They're not laughing anymore.''
Though widely criticized for her lack of administrative experience and political acumen, Mrs. Chamorro is seen as a right-wing candidate who can unite the fragile opposition coalition and inspire popular sympathy.
Her maternal mystique has led some hopeful supporters to call her the Nicaraguan version of Corazon Aquino. Somewhat like the Filipino leader, Dona Violeta - as she is known throughout Nicaragua - rose to prominence after the 1978 assassination of her husband, hard-hitting publisher Pedro Joaqu'in Chamorro of the opposition newspaper, La Prensa.
Soon after the Sandinistas' July 1979 overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, her husband's lifelong target and nemesis, Chamorro joined the five-person ruling junta. She resigned less than a year later, disillusioned by the Sandinistas' increasing domination of the junta.
Since then, the graceful, maternal figure has dedicated herself, ironically, to her husband's former post at La Prensa, only this time aiming arrows at a left-wing regime.
Armed with such a candidate, the long-fractured opposition hopes it can do what the United States-backed contra army never could: pose a serious challenge to the 10-year-old Sandinista regime.
It won't be easy. Both unity and inspiration will be needed in the UNO's uphill campaign battle against the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Polls show that the state-driven party is favored to win the elections even after presiding over the sharpest economic collapse in the nation's history. Some opposition leaders doubt whether their own coalition has much chance of winning.
But simply agreeing on a ticket marks an important opposition triumph. Before the last elections in 1984, the opposition split over whether to participate - leaving only a weak candidate to challenge President Ortega.
The UNO ticket reflects a desire to maintain internal cohesion while appealing to the mass of nonaligned, apathetic voters who will likely determine the election outcome.
``There was a clear understanding that we couldn't trip up anymore,'' says Alfredo Cesar, a former contra political leader who is now one of Chamorro's most influential advisers. The ticket, he says, is a ``balanced combination that will maintain the unity of the UNO.''
Many of the opposition's traditional divisions have stemmed from serious ideological differences. The UNO coalition includes everything from the old-line Conservative Party to the Nicaraguan Communist Party, which advocates even more state control than the leftist Sandinistas themselves.
But often the most damaging splits stem less from ideology than from personal disputes and rivalries.
``The divisions have not come from basic political differences but from egos, jealousy, leadership, or at times because of donations,'' says Andres Zuniga, a member of the Authentic Independent Liberal Party (PALI), a member of UNO. As if to explain why Nicaraguan politicians sometimes let personal fortune undermine opposition unity and strength, Mr. Zuniga shrugs: ``We're sons of dictatorship.''
Zuniga himself is apparently not exempt from the ills he describes. Four years ago, for no clear ideological reason, he and a small group of followers broke away from his original party to form the PALI. His party now receives separate disbursements from the central government, and Zuniga says he continues to travel to Washington every six weeks or so - by invitation.
He is not alone. Over a dozen other parties have born political offspring over the past four years, many of them ideologically indistinguishable from their parents.
``It's hard enough for those of us whose job it is to follow these things,'' says a European diplomat. ``How's a campesino, struggling to grow enough to live on, going to understand?''
The UNO hopes its unified ticket clears up the confusion. Political observers - including Sandinistas - say they were surprised when UNO hammered out a political platform two weeks ago.
While calling for a free-market economy driven by the private sector, the plan also leaves some important Sandinista reforms intact.
``The opposition's great challenge is unity,'' says Emilio Alvarez Montalvan, a prominent leader of the Conservative Party. ``We'll pay any price for unity - even a fuzzy, indecisive document.'' He adds: ``We don't want to rock a boat that's hardly floating.''
Now over the first and second hurdles, the opposition's biggest obstacles lie ahead - both in campaigning against the well-oiled Sandinista machine and in battling against a culture that does not trust the power of the ballot box.
The 37,500-member FSLN permeates nearly every village and barrio in Nicaragua. Even as its popularity has declined in the face of a prolonged economic crisis, the Sandinistas still hold sway over the largest core of ardent followers in the country.
In fact, they see the economic crisis - not the opposition - as their principal opponent.
``The only difficult candidate right now is the economy,'' says Dionisio Marenco, director of the Sandinista's Department of Agitation and Propaganda. ``The rest don't bother us.''
The opposition, however, intends to exploit the economic issue to its advantage. Not only do opposition leaders herald the privatization of the economy as first steps on the road to recovery. But they say an opposition victory would bring in a flood of aid from the US and other countries around the world, including Japan.
And they're probably right.
But the hard part will be mustering the strength - and the party structures - to persuade the huge pool of undecided and uninterested voters that the elections are vital.
These voters could swing the election toward the opposition - especially in the even tighter legislative elections. But less than two months before the deadline for voter registration, the opposition has not yet begun a campaign to sign them up.