Nicaragua's Sandinistas Fail to Resolve Party Rift

Ortega's rivalry with former vice president threatens party's future

FORMER President Daniel Ortega Saavedra may have won a comfortable victory in his party's latest leadership battle, but his triumph has left the party - the Sandinista National Liberation Front - with unresolved divisions and without a viable candidate for Nicaragua's 1996 election.

The implications for the country are less clear, but signs indicate that political conflict will continue to jeopardize chances for economic recovery and that a right-wing alternative, not the Sandinistas, will capitalize on the discontent over the current government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

In the Sandinistas' ``extraordinary'' congress, held on May 20-23, Mr. Ortega won the secretary-general position over Henry Ruiz Hernandez, a highly respected party veteran and minister of planning and foreign cooperation during the Sandinista era. Mr. Ruiz received 35 percent of the votes cast in the May 23 ballot.

Though Ruiz was the standard-bearer of the opposition to Ortega's 15-year party reign, the real battle took place between Ortega and his former vice president, Sergio Ramirez Mercado, leader of the Sandinista legislators in the National Assembly. The two men head distinct factions in the party, which emerged into public view this year. The strife between them has become increasingly bitter, to the point of provoking fears of a rupture.

Anguish over a possible split led some congress-goers to make dramatic appeals for unity and reconciliation. Another veteran leader, Victor Tirado, decried during the deliberations, ``We cannot permit Daniel and Sergio each to go his own way, or one to crush the other.'' The delegates to the Congress appeared not to pay any heed, however, voting to fill an expanded, 15-member party directorate overwhelmingly with followers of Ortega.

In Ortega's remarks to the closing session, he put his finger squarely on the heart of the party's divergence: the strategy for preserving what Sandinistas see as the gains of their 11-year revolution. ``We have differences over which conquests to defend and how to defend them,'' he said.

Since losing the 1990 election to Ms. Chamorro, Ortega has been the champion of Nicaraguan workers' resistance to the market-oriented restructuring of this country's once-socialist economy. A tireless political activist, he has sanctioned violent tactics at times to prevent the Chamorro government from privatizing government-owned companies - returning properties confiscated by his revolution in the 1980s to their former owners -

and cutting services to the poor in the guise of fighting inflation.

In contrast, Mr. Ramirez has criticized violent ``methods of struggle'' for deepening the rift between the party and ordinary Nicaraguans, many of whom disapprove of Ortega's leadership and blame the former president (and by extension his party) for scaring away the investment needed to lift Nicaragua out of the economic morass left behind the contra war of the 1980s.

Proponents of this view fear that with Ortega at the helm, the party has little chance of recovering sufficient support in time to be a viable contender for power in 1996 against what is expected to be a strong bid for the presidency by the right-wing mayor of Managua, Arnoldo Aleman Lecayo.

Trends in public backing for the Sandinistas tend to confirm the correctness of this view. In recent opinion polls, support for the Sandinistas has hovered around 25 percent of the electorate. Among possible presidential candidates, only the more moderate Ramirez earns stronger poll ratings than his potential right-wing rival and appears as the sole Sandinista capable of reaching out to the majority of uncommitted Nicaraguan voters.

Now that he has been dropped from the party leadership, however, Ramirez's presidential prospects are cloudy. Though he will likely keep his post as party legislative leader, Ortega is now in a stronger position to garner the 1996 Sandinista nomination.

At the same time, the congress left untreated the party's underlying differences, failing to send a clear signal to the rest of the country that the Sandinistas are changing.

Commented cattle rancher Juan Tijerino, a Ruiz supporter, ``I'm afraid we have come out of the Congress worse off than when we went in.''

The congress marked a milestone in the history of this revolutionary party that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and ruled Nicaragua until 1990 because for the first time, the leadership struggle among Sandinistas involved a one-on-one contest for party leaders rather than the more manipulative voting procedures of the past.

The vote left little doubt that the result reflected Ortega's wish to sideline Ramirez, his former right-hand man and current rival.

Sandinista opposition to Ortega has risen for reasons other than his tactics. A recent study of party members revealed that 55 percent view Ortega's leadership as dictatorial.

Even his supporters decry the former president's penchant for taking decisions without consulting others. But control over the party apparatus, and the fact that current congress delegates were elected in 1991, allowed Ortega to stay on top.

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