AFTER nearly five centuries of wars, dictatorships, and foreign interventions, Nicaraguans will have an opportunity on Feb. 25 to shape their own future in the country's first free and widely contested elections. Nothing in Nicaraguan history has prepared them for such an experiment in democracy. And nobody, it seems, can accurately predict whether the ruling Sandinistas or the National Opposition Union (UNO) will triumph.
But most Nicaraguans seem to understand that - regardless of the outcome - the coming elections offer not just a referendum on the 10-year-old Sandinista revolution, but renewed hope that the nation's conflicts can be resolved with ballots rather than bullets.
It is no simple transition.
With just a few days remaining before Nicaragua's 1.7 million registered voters can choose their president, national assembly, and municipal councils, the atmosphere is charged with anticipation - and incidents of violence.
On Feb. 18, a group of the US-backed contra rebels killed four members of a government cooperative in an ambush near the town of Estel'i, in the northern province of Jinotega - an attack the leftist Sandinistas tried to link to the UNO, which includes former members of the contra directorate.
``Tensions are obviously mounting,'' says Antonio Lacayo, a shrewd businessman who heads the campaign of UNO candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who happens to be his mother-in-law. ``It's natural. It's like the first time a boy approaches a girl. There are vibrations.''
Mr. Lacayo continues: ``Here in Nicaragua we're feeling for the first time what it's like to approach a day when the history of the country could change without the need to die.''
Ever since the Central American isthmus was discovered in the 16th century, the wedge of semi-tropical jungle that became known as Nicaragua has been wracked by periods of conflict.
From American adventurer William Walker in the 1850s to the elusive Gen. Augusto C'esar Sandino in the 1920s, to strongman Anastasio Somoza and guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega in the 1970s, Nicaraguan history is laced with examples of political power being contested - and conceded - only through violence.
``The political culture here is not accustomed to compromise,'' deadpans opposition leader Emilio Alvarez Montalv'an. ``When a tiger is on top of you, you don't negotiate your escape. You have to throw it off.''
During the 43-year dynasty of the Somoza family, which ended with the Sandinistas' leftist revolution in 1979, staged elections were held to give the right-wing rulers a sense of legitimacy. The outcomes were never in doubt.
This election is different.
After 10 years of Sandinista rule, the war-weary population finds that the early achievements of the revolution in health, education, and social welfare have been decimated. Living standards have fallen well below pre-1979 levels. And inflation continues to eat away at workers' subsistence-level salaries.
Economic discontent, along with the strong rejection of the military draft, has given the amorphous UNO coalition a chance of beating a slicker, better-organized Sandinista campaign.
Nicaraguans seem to have caught the election spirit, openly supporting some opposition leaders who just a year ago were considered subversives.
But the voters are still wary of what many see as a fragile political opening. Even among the army of pollsters in Nicaragua, there are some who concede that the voters' real opinions are often undecipherable.
``People are not ready to tell the truth,'' says Luis Humberto Guzm'an, editor of the respected weekly, La Cr'onica, and a skeptic about polls strutted out by either side. ``The voters may have a vague fear, a lack of previous experience, or they guess which side a poll-taker is from and try to please him .... It's not necessarily a problem with the polls themselves, but with Nicaraguan political culture.''
The lack of a democratic tradition has also led to some less-than-democratic campaign tactics.
The two sides have engaged in a war of the walls, defacing each other's campaign propaganda.
On the night of Feb. 19, for example, a small caravan of vehicles packed with Sandinista supporters cruised through a wealthy Managua neighborhood tearing down UNO posters and flags. Less than 100 yards behind, a government police jeep crept along silently with its headlights dimmed.
The blurred line between the government and the Sandinista party has led to other problems. Even as the Sandinistas ridicule the opposition for receiving US financial support, UNO candidates - along with outside observers - rail against the extensive use of state resources in the Sandinistas' lush campaign. ``The system can't be absolutely pure because no pure democracy exists anywhere in the world,'' says Minister of Planning Alejandro Mart'inez Cuenca, who denies the misuse of funds. ``The important thing is that Nicaragua is doing what it can: A country that hasn't had a democratic experience in years is institutionalizing democracy.''
Despite its imperfections, Nicaragua's electoral process is altering the political landscape here.
And despite the looming threat of violence, both sides seem to recognize that Nicaragua cannot progress - or even survive - without the economic power represented by the UNO and the military-political power of the Sandinista Front.
Says Mr. Guzm'an, the newspaper editor: ``This country is not governable by either side alone.''