Voting Under A Microscope

Last month's feisty but free Nicaraguan elections surprised the visiting press hordes

THE world invaded Nicaragua not long ago. More than 1,700 foreigners descended on this small Central American country in February, journalists armed with notebooks and cameras to report on the long-awaited elections here.

Nicaragua was a country literally buzzing with presidential election excitement. Radio stations played campaign songs over and over, as if they were the latest Top 40 hits. Campaign graffiti covered every spare wall. Red and black flags - the symbol of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) - waved over city streets.

Journalists from all over the world talked to everyone in sight: government officials, candidates, diplomats, taxi drivers, and the man and woman on the street. And like journalists everywhere they talked to each other. A lot. Who would win, Daniel or Violeta? (meaning President Daniel Ortega, leader of the FSLN, or challenger Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, candidate of the opposition National Opposition Union (UNO). In Nicaragua, politicians are called by their first names.

It wasn't much of a debate because almost everyone seemed sure President Ortega would win by a comfortable margin. After all, polls showed the charismatic President ahead by 15 to 25 percentage points.

Judging by outward signs, such as the amount of wall space covered with graffiti and the size of rallies, Ortega certainly seemed like a sure winner. The masses wore campaign T-shirts splashed with the promise ``Daniel Presidente, Todo sera mejor'' - ``Everything will be better.''

The FSLN also cornered the market on organization. Journalists were offered transportation to out-of-Managua FSLN rallies, where platforms were provided to give photographers the best possible shot of Daniel's show. He would emerge out of a sea of red and black FSLN flags, arms outstretched, thronged by supporters and engulfed by their chants, ``Daniel! Daniel! Daniel!''

Strutting around his elaborate stage clad in jeans, cowboy boots, and fancy shirts, the animated Sandinista leader behaved more like Bruce Springsteen in concert than a politician on the campaign trail. He acted the victor before the first vote was cast: cocky, self-assured, triumphant.

Opposition UNO rallies, on the other hand, were nothing less than chaotic. There was no prearranged transportation, much less a safe place to stand. Journalists caught in the crush of people became targets for pickpockets working in pairs who would steal money, passports, even the lens right off of a photographer's camera.

Mrs. Chamorro, dressed in white, would arrive riding in the back of a pickup truck with a makeshift white roof, her leg propped up on a pillow due to a broken knee. Her ``stage'' was the back of an old flatbed truck. In her wheelchair, she presented a contrast to Ortega's energetic dancing on stage. Even UNO's graffiti couldn't rival the FSLN's: It often looked like it was painted by a fifth grader in a hurry.

Most reporters wrote stories on Ortega's impending victory.

Meanwhile, photographers were trying not to fall over each other - no small feat, especially at press conferences. Local photographers seemed to think they would get a better photo by standing only six inches away from their subjects, blocking the shot for other photographers who then fought harder to get the shot themselves.

The last rally of the campaign was held on Wednesday before the Sunday elections. It was an FSLN blowout in the capital, Managua, with red and black flags as far as the eye could see. That left three full days before the elections with no scheduled ``events.''

Journalists were beside themselves. Nervous photographers roamed around the city looking for action. There wasn't a single shot of a candidate, arms held up in impending victory, to be had.

Finally, election day arrived. Journalists headed out to observe the main event. By 6:30 a.m., long lines of voters snaked out of small schoolhouses all over the country. Many people hadn't slept that night because they were so excited about voting. Ninety percent of registered voters turned out; thanks to the presence of international observers, they went to the polls confident of secrecy and of their own safety. With a dignity that came from the knowledge they were performing an act of great importance, they waited in line for hours, uncomplaining.

When Chamorro went to vote, her driver let her out half a block away from the polling station, which meant she had to maneuver through a hoard of hungry photographers who surrounded her even though she was shakily making her way on crutches. She finally yelled, ``Don't bother me anymore!''

By midday journalists were confused. One writer had interviewed 40 voters and not one of them had voted for the FSLN. Yet the pre-election polls had placed Ortega way ahead. Some journalists filed stories that still said Ortega would win, yet added a last paragraph expressing doubt. Maybe, they added, UNO did have a chance after all.

By 3 a.m. the following morning, UNO had won. Chamorro raised her arms in victory to a stunned audience. The outcome of the elections surprised almost everyone: the polltakers, most journalists, probably the contenders, too - but maybe not the people who brought UNO to power with a landslide victory.

For months the people had been told their preference was secret. Until their votes were tabulated, they kept their secret, and brought in a new government in a vote that astonished the world.

All the journalists could do was shake their heads in disbelief.

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