SIGNS of a serious struggle over leadership in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) between ex-President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his former right-hand man are darkening the first real prospect in three years for alleviating Nicaragua's chronic political crisis.
More than a dispute over personal power, analysts say the tension between the two men is over the direction their party - which ruled Nicaragua during the 1980s and is the principal opposition to President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro - should take during the rest of Mrs. Chamorro's term.
The tension has surfaced amid a national debate over whether to address the political crisis by reforming the current Constitution, passed by the Sandinistas in 1987, or call elections for a constituent assembly and write an entirely new charter.
Former Sandinista Vice President Sergio Ramirez wants to reform the current Constitution. Leader of the moderate wing in the FSLN and of his party's bench in Nicaragua's National Assembly, Mr. Ramirez is attempting to hammer together a parliamentary coalition of Sandinistas, National Opposition Union (UNO) moderates, and centrists who would pass a series of political and constitutional reforms designed to dampen the crisis, facilitate economic recovery, and stabilize the country.
Right-wing politicians in the UNO, who backed Chamorro in elections in 1990 but have become disenchanted with her, support the idea of a constitutional assembly. For many on the right, the constitutional assembly, rather than a solution to the crisis, is a formula for taking control of the government and even shortening Chamorro's term.
On Nov. 10, Nicaragua's Roman Catholic bishops appeared to back the scheme when Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo said that a new constitutional parley ``could be a solution'' and called for a plebiscite to let voters decide.
Chamorro promptly rejected the idea and threatened to resign if anything more than ``minor reforms'' were passed.
Mr. Ortega, considered the leader of the radical wing of the FSLN for championing the often violent struggles by Nicaraguan workers against Chamorro's economic policies, is ambiguous on the constitutional issue.
Though officially his party is in favor of partial reforms - and Ortega himself is conducting parallel negotiations with UNO leaders over reform issues - the former president on Nov. 9 was quoted as saying, ``If a constituent assembly is necessary to pass the changes, let's have it.''
Disagreement between the two FSLN leaders erupted Nov.4 when Ramirez introduced a bill to regulate the privatization of public utilities in the Assembly. Ortega marshalled his forces in the party, including union leaders, to oppose the bill. He said that it could lead to cutting jobs and raising public utility rates.
Five of the Sandinista lawmakers backing the bill reported receiving telephone threats, apparently from other Sandinistas, calling them ``traitors.''
AMID rumors that a serious division was brewing, one of these, deputy William Ramirez, rebuked party leader Ortega for ``engaging in demagogy in the name of the poor.''
Sandinistas differ over exactly what is behind the dispute between their two principal leaders. They agree that it is not simply a power struggle. Although Ramirez is emerging as the FSLN's best standard-bearer for 1996, he is not challenging Ortega immediately for party leadership.
Ramirez is seeking a national accord that will put the FSLN in the forefront of efforts to depolarize the political scene. But he is aware that in the short term, reforms will help stabilize a government whose policies have adversely affected Sandinistas.
The reform package he touts attacks the root causes of Nicaragua's political conflict in two ways. It directly addresses issues that for years have divided Sandinistas and the UNO, by prohibiting reelection of the president, subordinating the Sandinista Army more fully to civilian control, and providing for a less partisan judiciary.
Collateral steps would pave the way for the retirement of Army leader Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra and revamp the leadership of the National Assembly, permitting the return of at least some of the UNO legislators who have been boycotting that body since January.
A second set of reforms would transfer taxing, spending, and other economic decisionmaking powers from the executive to the legislature. ``For us Sandinistas, this is really the heart of the matter,'' says Assembly Vice President Reinaldo Tefel. Through this change, the Sandinistas hope to exert control over economic policies, now largely negotiated in secret by the government and the International Monetary Fund.
If sponsorship of reform offers dividends to the party, some of its implications for Ortega are unfavorable. If presidential reelection is banned, he will not get a chance to vindicate himself in 1996 for his loss to Chamorro three years ago, and may eventually be eclipsed as party leader.
Others, however, say more is involved in Ortega's vacilating stance toward the constitutional assembly. One noted Sandinista analyst argues that Ortega opposes the stabilization promised by the reform package.
``Daniel reasons that a political accord now will simply breathe life into a government he believes has failed and needs to be replaced, though by what he isn't sure,'' the analyst says.
If this is correct, Ortega has tacitly aligned himself with the far right in opposing a short-term alleviation of Nicaragua's political difficulties and seeks instead to reap advantage from an aggravation of the crisis.
Whatever the case, those supporting Ramirez appear to be gaining the upper hand over Ortega in FSLN inner circles. Sandinista lawmaker Jose Leon Talavera, a reform proponent, insists that ``the legislative bench is sovereign. If we have to, we will go ahead with reforms even if Ortega disapproves, because it is the only way out.''