THE first major step toward Nicaragua's eagerly awaited February elections ended Sunday when voter registration was completed. A total of 1.75 million voters is estimated to have registered over the last four Sundays - about 200,000 more than for the 1984 elections.
``What is clear now is that the victor will be decided by who best organizes their campaign,'' says a South American diplomat.
On that score, the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front has the decided advantage, diplomats and observers here agree. The Sandinistas have dominated politics ever since they led the country in an insurrection that toppled the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. They have about 30,000 party members and access to government resources and an array of public organizations.
But the National Opposition Union (UNO) has one great advantage, according to diplomats and some Sandinistas: the widespread, palpable discontent in this country over its endemic economic problems and years of declining living standards.
``But it is absolutely correct ... that this discontent does not automatically translate into a vote for UNO,'' says one top UNO official. ``We'll have to identify those who are undecided and organize that discontent into votes for us.''
But it is clear from interviews with UNO officials and diplomats that UNO is behind schedule.
Indeed, with four months to go, it opened its national campaign headquarters only last week with a few desks, three telephones, and one photocopying machine.
UNO officials complain that they are having to learn how to organize a campaign as they go along. In addition, they must constantly work to maintain the unity of the coalition, which is made up of 11 parties ranging from rightist to Communist.
They also plead poverty, despite constant Sandinista charges that the individual parties in the coalition have been funded by the United States Central Intelligence Agency and the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy. The US Congress recently approved $9 million for use by UNO in the elections.
``We are also worried that these funds [from the US] may not arrive in time and won't be available for us to use directly in the campaign,'' says Antonio Lecayo, UNO's campaign manager. The funds may ensure only that the elections look fair to poll watchers, he added.
But UNO also lacks a clear and aggressive campaign strategy to reach out to the undecided voters.
Most polls give President Daniel Ortega Saavedra a five-to-seven-point lead over Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the opposition candidate. But the ``don't know/won't declare'' category has regularly made up the largest percentage bloc in all polls done in the last six months.
UNO's current strategy appears to be to have Barrios de Chamorro make as many campaign appearances and reach out to as many voters as possible.
She is a popular figure, as was witnessed at a campaign rally on Saturday in San Rafael Del Norte, about 125 miles north of Managua.
About 3,000 mostly campesino supporters stood impassively during several speeches. But the crowd came alive after Barrios de Chamorro spoke, condemning what she called the ``10 years of betrayal'' of Sandinista misrule. The crowd swarmed around the stage in the central square to touch her and have her autograph their UNO neckerchiefs.
Barrios de Chamorro is known best as the widow of Pedro Joaqu'in Chamorro, the assassinated anti-Somoza hero who was the enormously popular publisher of the La Prensa daily.
She is considered one of UNO's top assets. However, UNO's liabilities still outweigh their assets for the moment, according to diplomats and some UNO officials.
Not the least of these liabilities are charges against the opposition's vice presidential candidate, Virgillio Godoy, of misappropriation of funds. Several members of Mr. Godoy's Independent Liberal Party have alleged that he has both misused and refused to account for some $800,000 in funds from a West German foundation.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to be overcome, other than a lack of resources and a far-from-well-oiled campaign machine, is the ``fear factor.'' Although UNO ascribes this to Sandinista repression, other observers and diplomats offer a more subtle interpretation.
They say the problem for UNO is that many people are resigned to the government winning power. Indeed, 26 percent of the respondents in a recent poll said they would vote for Mr. Ortega and 21 for Barrios de Chamorro. But almost 44 percent said they expected Ortega to win.
``The Sandinistas talk of Nicaragua as having a very politicized populace,'' noted one European diplomat. ``But in many ways this is a very backward society.''
``Going back to the times of [the late dictator Anastasio] Somoza,'' said the diplomat, ``people, especially the urban and rural poor, have this idea that some kind of `Big Brother' exists who will know how you voted even if the ballot is secret.
``And it is very difficult to overcome that kind of attitude,'' the diplomat added.
Indeed, most observers and politicians here agree that the election is just one part of a larger process involving squaring the revolutionary side of Nicaraguan society - the meshing of the Sandinista party with the government and Army after 10 years of rule - with a trend toward establishing a liberal democracy.
That is a long process fraught with contradictions that an opposition victory could force to a conclusion too soon.
Still, says one worker in Managua, ``We are so [economically] ruined now that any change would be good, if only for a short while.''
It is that widespread sentiment that makes this election campaign a dynamic process in which UNO is odds-on underdog in a contest that is not yet over.