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Chamorro's "peace' campaign closes

Violeta Barrios de Chamorro ended her presidential campaign Sunday by telling the largest opposition election rally in Nicaraguan history that she will bring peace to the country if she wins. Between 40,000 and 50,000 people streamed into a downtown Managua plaza to listen to the speech by Chamorro, whose U.S.-backed National Opposition Union is challenging President Daniel Ortega and his ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front.

The gray-haired widow and devout Roman Catholic looked up at hundreds of people clustered like pigeons high on ledges of the city's cathedral, a roofless shell since Nicaragua's disastrous 1972 earthquake.

"Next Sunday the 25th the vote of the people will knock down the wall of shame as the German people did with the Berlin Wall," she said.

The rally officially closed the opposition's campaign for the presidential elections that will be held on Sunday under terms of a regional peace accord. Municipal and regional elections will be held at the same time.

Ortega and Vice President Sergio Ramirez held a rally on Sunday in Leon, 55 miles northwest of Managua, drawing about 35,000 people. The Sandinistas, who have ruled Nicaragua since 1979, will hold their final rally in Managua on Wednesday.

The elections are expected to serve as a referendum on the Sandinista revolution.

Dressed in a straw hat and flowing white dress and sitting in the wheelchair that has become her trademark since she fell at home and injured a knee several weeks ago, Chamorro promised peace, prosperity, freedom, better education, easier credit for farmers and an immediate end to the military draft.

"On the 25th of February we will choose between the peace that I propose and Sandinista militarism," she said, touching on her main theme.

"Our democracy will have more teachers than soldiers and more schools than barracks."

In the 30-minute speech, she pledged to right all the wrongs of the 10-year-old leftist Sandinista government.

"Our country is in ruins. I ask you, are you doing better today than yesterday? Are you doing better than one month ago, or one year ago, or 10 years ago? Don't you think that by now it's time to change things?"

Polls during the six-month campaign have been contradictory and Nicaraguans are traditionally reluctant to reveal their true intentions to poll takers.

Although she has gained some passionate supporters, and many more Nicaraguans will vote for her out of disgust with the economic abyss into which the country has fallen under the Sandinistas, Chamorro would still be a surprise winner.

But the rally on Sunday reflected substantial gains by the UNO, which started out as a squabbling, disorganized alliance of 14 political parties ranging from Conservative to Communist and has been seriously hampered by funding problems.

When she was chosen in August as candidate of the National Opposition Union, known by its Spanish acronym as UNO, the 60-year-old Chamorro was best known as the widow of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the publisher of La Prensa newspaper, who was assassinated after years of crusading against dictator Anastasio Somoza.

Chamorro's only previous political experience was as a member of the governing junta set up by the Sandinistas after they overthrew Somoza in July 1979.

She resigned after a few months, citing ill health, but she now says she disagreed with her colleagues' Marxist ideas and Cuban advisers.

Her own main cause seems to be the memory of her husband. Her Managua house is filled with statues, pictures and mementoes of him, and the car in which he was shot to death has been restored and parked outside.

When she was nominated, Chamorro told supporters she had consulted God and Pedro Joaquin on whether to accept.

After several months of scarce funds and poor organization, Chamorro's campaign began gathering steam in January. Suddenly "the whole campaign gives the impression that someone has a grip on it," a senior European diplomat said last week.

Chamorro herself improved her rambling delivery by reading speeches, and her promises of peace and reconciliation began to take root, preached by the devout widow of a national hero, dressed in white and riding on a white-painted pickup truck fitted with a canopy to shield her from the brutal Nicaraguan sun.

But the UNO surge came late. Since the official start of the campaign in August, the Sandinistas have carried out an ingenious, expensive, and well-organized campaign, building on their advantage as incumbents.

And the main reason Nicaragua has never seen an opposition election rally like Sunday's is that the country has never had elections as democratic as next Sunday's are likely to be, or such a large opposition coalition.

Nicaragua was ruled by U.S.-backed dictators who staged sham elections from the 1930s to the 1979 Sandinista revolution. Since then, elections were held only once, in 1984, but the main opposition candidate withdrew, charging fraud. This time, Nicaragua has been overwhelmed by its elections. The product of an agreement between Ortega and four other Central American presidents, they are being more carefully scrutinized by foreigners than any other elections in history.

More than 2,000 foreign observers have swarmed into the country, where accommodations are so scarce that the Spanish Embassy has raised tents on its lawn for some of its observers.

Election news has forced almost everything else out of the newspapers. La Prensa has turned into an unabashed campaign sheet for its publisher, Chamorro. Barricada, the Sandinista party newspaper run by her son Carlos Fernando, and El Nuevo Diario, another pro-Sandinista daily, have been campaigning equally hard and equally stridently for the Sandinistas. The eight other small parties running have been confined to taking out ads in the newspaper, painting walls with their slogans, and participating in the interminable television debates required by the complex election law.