An Invasion of Observers

FOR the past 10 years, President Daniel Ortega Saavedra has huffed and puffed about the ``imminent invasion.'' It finally came.

More than 7,000 foreigners have descended on this tiny Central American nation over the past few weeks - not to take over the Sandinista government, but to watch the historic presidential elections on Feb. 25.

The invasion of Managua has not only turned the coming vote into the most-observed election in world history (a per capita equivalent for a United States election would require some 450,000 observers). But it has also injected desperately needed dollars into the prostrate economy, raising the cash flow by an estimated $5 million to $10 million.

Of the 2,500 ``official observers,'' 669 are trained monitors on coordinated teams from the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and a delegation led by former US President Jimmy Carter. These observers have already played a key role in smoothing out the election process, but they will become indispensable on election day.

For in a country with no democratic heritage, the election's success will be judged not by the results but by its fairness - and by the willingness of both sides to abide by the outcome.

The 239-member UN team, considered the most rigorous and experienced, will cover more than 70 percent of the tabulation centers and conduct a ``quick count'' of a scientifically selected sample of 8 to 10 percent of them. The private tally, which they will use to detect irregularities, has a margin of error of less than half a percent.

On election day, the world will be waiting for these serious observers to validate - or invalidate - the voting.

Thousands of less-than-rigorous observers have poured into this town from everywhere from Hollywood to Holland. Mostly here to show solidarity with the leftist government, these hangers-on are politely referred to as ``electoral tourists.''

One solidarity group from the Soviet Union, however, was deeply serious. A four-man delegation from the Central Electoral Commission visited to figure out how to run a multiparty election - and still win. After seeing the Sandinistas' state-supported campaign - marked by slick TV ads, direct mailings, and automated telephone messages - an impressed commission vice president Dimitri Golovko commented: ``We have many useful recommendations to report to Moscow.'' After a decade of receiving aid and advice from the Soviets, Sandinista leaders seemed tickled to have the tables turned.

``We could give them an intensive course in how to run an election'' Sandinista campaign strategist Dionisio Marenco suggested.

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