NEARLY 2 million Nicaraguans have registered to vote in next February's election. The opposition is hustling to launch a credible challenge to the ruling Sandinistas when the campaign begins officially in early December. Observers from the United Nations have certified that electoral preparations are off to a good start. That's the good news out of Nicaragua. A process of political liberalization is under way that could help open a future of greater participation and less conflict for Nicaragua and all of Central America. But long-entrenched animosities could derail this process.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra's threat to end the cease-fire with the contra rebels was a case in point. What did he gain by it?
Some say he's seizing on continued contra skirmishes as an excuse for stalling the elections. Though the Sandinistas appear to have a lead, the opposition has shown strength. Mr. Ortega's effort to characterize renewed Sandinista military thrusts as a way to safeguard the elections, and to tie the contras to the opposition coalition, raise concerns about Sandinista motivations.
Or the Nicaraguan leader may be responding to pressures within his own party to do something about continued contra raids. Ortega's announced intention to end the cease-fire could have addressed those pressures, while proving - all too clearly perhaps - how negative the international reaction would be. That's giving Ortega the benefit of the doubt.
In any case, the announcement - whether trial balloon or hard-nosed statement of intent - was singularly ill-timed. The UN electoral commission had commended preparation for February's vote. The energy behind conservative efforts to revive US aid for the contras was dissipating. The ``summit of the Americas'' in Costa Rica was being hailed as an occasion to celebrate the advance of democracy. The United States, determined to avoid serious discussion with Ortega present, was making it difficult for the summit to accomplish much.
Then Ortega opened his mouth and not only cast doubts on his commitment to the elections, but gave skeptical Americans all they could want in fresh reasons to isolate his regime and keep the contras' powder dry.
Destructive as it may have been, the cease-fire statement can't be allowed to block progress towards the elections. The democratic ground is being prepared to test the claims of popular support made by both sides in Nicaragua. Let the electoral process proceed.