Hard Riding on The Sandinista Campaign Trail

As the February presidential election nears, Ortega is making a big effort to woo voters. POLITICS: NICARAGUA

DANIEL ORTEGA SAAVEDRA may dress in a revolutionary army-green uniform and combat boots as head of the Sandinista National Liberation Front party and president of the republic, but he campaigns like politicians everywhere. Mounted on horseback, wearing red-and-black neckerchief and Stetson, throwing the first pitch at a local baseball game, jogging with youthful supporters, pressing the flesh, kissing babies, and hugging elderly ladies have all become the stock scenes of President Ortega's campaign for the presidency to be decided next Feb. 25.

Known as a tireless worker, the 44-year-old Ortega has plunged headlong into the campaign, making almost daily appearances at rallies and events around the country as he mixes his official duties with wooing the voters.

Indeed, while the election campaign officially began earlier this month, Ortega has been hard on the trail since last February, when he agreed to hold early elections in exchange for a plan signed by the other four Central American presidents to demobilize the rightist contra rebels.

And while the Sandinistas are full of confidence about their victory, the huge effort being made during the campaign belies their worries of what the 1.75 million Nicaraguan voters will do when they cast their ballots.

Ortega's closest political rival is Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, head of the National Opposition Union (UNO). But his worst enemy is the Nicaraguan economy, which is ending its fifth year of drastic decline. Not surprisingly, the Sandinistas have taken as their campaign slogan !Todo ser'a mejor! (Everything will be better!).

THE Sandinistas have tailored their campaign well to fit this underdeveloped country whose greatest influence is its rural roots. Thus Ortega inevitably arrives in rural towns on the back of a fine horse surrounded by dozens of Nicaragua's version of cowboys. They've even taken a special slogan to fit the countryside: Daniel es mi gallo. Gallo is Spanish for a fighting cock, an old tradition here. While Ortega's campaign rhetoric is dominated by the militant language of the revolutionary, he never fails to attend to the small niceties of the politician looking for votes: a kiss on the cheek, pat on the head, quick embrace, or a firm handshake as he wades through crowds of adoring followers or the simply curious.

The main Sandinista strategy has been to paint the election as a contest between themselves as the protectors of national dignity, and the ``pro-gringo'' coalition led by Mrs. Chamorro. Ortega's camp is also working hard to taint UNO as full of Somocistas, members of the old regime of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Dipping into state security files, the party newspaper, Barricada, has taken to running photostats of identity cards of former Somoza National Guardsmen whom it claims are UNO candidates or officials.

Indeed, UNO is at a distinct disadvantage since Ortega has all the advantages of incumbency in a country where the Sandinistas have a monopoly on political power. But that is a mixed blessing for Ortega. As the Sandinistas have kept all political power to themselves, they must also account for all the failings of government. There are no predecessors to lay blame on. There is only the United States - and thus the Sandinista strategy to tie UNO to the US-backed war.

Rhetoric on the campaign trail by all the candidates runs from harsh to shrill as they spend a good deal of time reviling their opponents, giving new meaning to the concept of ``negative campaigning.''

FOR its part, UNO is focusing on organizing the widespread discontent over the economy into votes for itself. In doing so, they deftly reversed the Sandinista campaign slogan to impress on people that if Ortega wins, ``Everything will be worse.''

And while campaign rallies, endless speeches, and electioneering in general can be mind-numbing after a while, much is at stake in these national elections. Ten years after the Sandinistas led a popular insurrection against a half-century-old dictatorship, this country has yet to catch its breath.

The enormous loss of life in toppling Somoza - the tremendous social and political upheaval of revolution - was followed by years of war with the US-backed contras at home and US-led hostility internationally, all amid a deteriorating standard of living.

Now, with the contras increasingly an anachronism, and the events in Eastern Europe imbuing international relations with a new spirit of cooperation, most Nicaraguans hope the election will finally bring their beleaguered country its much needed peace and national reconciliation - and maybe even some prosperity.

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