IF there were any dark closets of doubt remaining about the popularity of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, they are gone. They are gone not because of United States diplomacy, or refugees in Miami, or contra press conferences in Washington, but because of the jolting, naked light of a Gallup poll. A Gallup affiliate in the region completed a national opinion poll in Nicaragua last week. Democratic opposition leader Violeta Chamorro is carrying an 11-point lead over Marxist leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra for presidential elections to be held in February.
``We know that this poll is an accurate reflection of what the situation is in Nicaragua right now,'' says Dr. Carlos Denton, general manager of the Gallup affiliate in Costa Rica.
The 70-question poll - which was partially funded by the pro-Sandinista newspaper Nuevo Diario - reached about 1,200 people in both urban areas and in the countryside and is considered the most reliable one taken to date.
The results show support for Mrs. Chamorro in virtually every sector of society: from wealthy businessmen to poor campesinos. In cities outside Managua, Chamorro commands a 2-to-1 lead over Mr. Ortega, with 44 percent in her favor. Even in Managua, long considered a citadel of Sandinista support, the newspaper publisher and her National Opposition Union (UNO) are edging out Ortega and the Sandinistas by 7 percent.
(Denton's poll was a national sample of the voting-age population, completed before the final day of registration. When only voters who had registered at the time of the poll are considered, Chamarro has a somewhat lesser lead.)
The results serve as a telling index to the level of grass-roots malaise after a decade of Marxist dictatorship, militancy, and mismanagement. Having taken Nicaragua to the edge of an economic abyss, the Sandinista government finds itself on the political defensive. Perhaps this explains Ortega's surprise announcement at the Costa Rican summit to resume a military campaign against the contras.
But the poll results offer no guarantee that Chamorro's democratic forces will triumph or that fair elections will occur next year. Only registered voters can participate in the elections, and the Sandinistas have labored quietly but ardently to block unfriendly constituents. Reports still trickle in of armed intimidation and bureaucratic inertia to keep out opposition voters, particularly in rural areas.
Researchers from this organization who recently returned from the Honduran border learned of hundreds of Miskito Indians who, after walking two days to a registration center, were denied access.
Residents of Mojon accused government troops of staging mock combat near voter-registration stations to scare away voters, the New York Times reported.
The government deliberately delayed issuing credentials to opposition poll monitors, slowing the flow of registrations, according to the international arm of the AFL-CIO.
``The Sandinista regime is not missing the chance to influence the upcoming elections through voter registration,'' according to an Oct. 14 State Department cable. Indeed, the government campaign to obstruct registration is ``depriving tens of thousands'' of potential voters from casting their ballots, the cable said.
Unfortunately, the United States missed its chance to help the opposition at this most critical time. Congress approved its aid package to the Nicaraguan electoral process the day before the final day of registration. For sheer lack of resources, UNO could post observers at only half of the 4,400 registration centers nationwide.
According to government estimates, more than 75 percent of a voting population of 1,970,486 have registered to vote. But the degree to which the registration rolls have been padded, plus the extent of the Sandinista political apparatus make it difficult to predict the election outcome.
For this reason, opinion polls are essential to the elections in Nicaragua, which under Ortega has chalked up a grim record of hostility to democracy. Polls provide a potent way to expose blatant election fraud. Except perhaps in a Sandinista math book, one plus one never equals three.
A single national opinion poll can sometimes do as much to undermine the legitimacy of a regime as an armed opposition movement. The US government should have been in the lead in helping to sponsor the first poll.
Curiously, it was not. Mr. Denton said not a single US government agency showed any interest in the poll. Most of the funding came from the Canadian government, a private advertising agency in Managua, and the Coca-Cola Company.
We ought to wonder about the moral vision of the US government when, with regard to Nicaragua, it passes the democratic torch to a soft-drink conglomerate.