IN the 12 years since they helped topple Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front have rallied around a cry symbolic of the rigid authoritarian structure of a party shaped by war and revolution: "National Directorate, give us your orders!"But the slogan is unlikely to be heard anymore. Meeting July 20-21 at their first official party congress, Sandinista representives took significant steps to democratize the Front. They debated statutes and voted by secret ballot to elect a newly empowered, 120-member Sandinista Assembly - a body previously chosen by party leaders - whose power will now supersede the Directorate's. "Now you can no longer speak of 'National Directorate, give us your orders, Directorate member Tomas Borge said here July 19 in an interview in Barricada, the party-owned daily newspaper. "This slogan is obsolete." Yet its legacy looms large. Using a closed slate that practically guaranteed preservation of the existing leadership, congress delegates reelected the National Directorate, adding former Vice-President Sergio Ramirez and Rene Nunez to increase the body to nine members, and naming former President Daniel Ortega Saavedra as party secretary. Meanwhile, discussion of ideology was virtually off-limits, as delegates reaffirmed the party's revolutionary, anti-imperialist tradition without redefining their socialist vision. "It's Tammany Hall-style-politics. It just shows that they've learned nothing since the election," noted one European diplomat here. Party member Rafael Solis commented in a July 19 interview in the newspaper, Nuevo Diario: "They have not presented a definition of the Sandinista Front around a viable political project." Party leaders concede the congress represented no more than an intitial step in democratization, one that is likely to be followed by considerable debate. "In the present circumstances, it's not possible to make all of the changes we want to," Mr. Borge told reporters July 20. "This congress is one of transition." Still reeling from their 1990 national election defeat and the changes in the Soviet bloc, the majority of Sandinistas appear to agree with their leadership's bid for continuity and unity. "When you lose an election, there are wounds, and people look to blame someone. If we voted individually for the National Directorate, it would only produce divisions," explained delegate Samuel Mejia. Such issues strike at the heart of a heated debate under way among Sandinistas over how far to go in reforming and democratizing the party. A vocal minority has made it increasingly clear in recent months that it believes the party needs a major overhaul if it is to present a viable alternative for the nation's 1996 elections. The debate has split traditionalists and reformists. A June editorial in a weekly magazine likened the Sandinista Front to the Colossus of Rhodes, one foot planted in democracy and the other stuck in authoritarianism, with radicals and moderates in both camps. Saying the majority favored continuity, the article asserted that changing the Front wouldn't be easy, noting "the mentality of the average Sandinista continues to be quite rigid, basically because that has been their school." The debate has produced criticism unimaginable a year ago. Barricada staff writer Guillermo Cortes Dominguez argued for freer expression in a recent article: "Faced with adverse situations that implicate militants, leaders, or political or economic structures of the [Front], our paper loses its autonomy ... expressing a point of view the journalist does not share because in reality he has seen something different." Mr. Solis has been even more critical. Asked by Nuevo Diario for his opinion of Daniel Ortega, Solis said Ortega failed to express the aspirations of reformists, clinging instead to concepts of the past. "It appears that he has not assimilated, or does not want to assimilate, the changes that are taking place in the world, in Nicaragua, and the demands for change within the Front." Solis said he found the more moderate line of Ortega's brother, Humberto Ortega Saavedra, far more appealing. Humberto Ortega, who served on the National Directorate before being named Army chief, addressed the congress on Sunday, delivering a surprizing message to the unions. "Any permanent strike by the ultra-left, demanding things that a responsible union would never demand because they aren't possible, would condemn this country to crisis, making the cause of the revolution even more difficult," he said. The debate over the Sandinistas' future comes as the party is under fire from the political right regarding the so-called "pinata," the last-minute handout of land titles and government property by the Sandinistas prior to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's assumption of power in April 1990. Sandinista representatives have been boycotting the National Assembly since Conservative Party members tried to introduce a measure in June to overturn two laws that facilitated the handout. While Sandinista leaders say most of the land titles went to the poor, the right's offensive presents a clear threat to the leftist party.