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Letting the people speak in Nicaragua

A lot of people on both sides don't believe that the losing faction in Sunday's Nicaraguan presidential election will abide by the outcome. But then, many of those same doubters never believed that Nicaragua was capable of holding a free and fair election in the first place. Any legitimate doubts about the general election campaign now have been erased. Hundreds of observers representing a spectrum of independent, international organizations have overseen every aspect of the process, and they express confidence that they will be able to detect any significant attempt at vote fraud on Sunday.

No election anywhere is entirely free of chicanery, but the Nicaraguan campaign has had more in common with a New Hampshire primary than with a Panamanian or Haitian farce. The United National Opposition (UNO), led by presidential candidate Violeta Chamorro, has run a strong and spirited campaign. The ruling Sandinistas are running as if they realize they have a chance to lose. American-styled opinion polls have tracked the course of the campaign, and Nicaraguan citizens of all political persuasions have not been reticent in expressing their views.

If those observers from the United Nations, the Organization of American States and former President Jimmy Carter's monitoring group vouch for the validity of Sunday's vote, any subsequent caviling on the part of the losing side should be seen for what it is.

A victory for Chamorro's UNO slate would compel President Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista comandantes to give up the power they have maintained since the 1979 revolution that toppled the Somoza dictatorship. If the Sandinistas proved unwilling to abandon power peacefully, they almost certainly would precipitate an even more concerted effort to topple them by force. A strong congressional majority appears prepared to join the White House in restoring military aid to the Contras if the Ortega government reneges on its obligations under the Arias peace plan.

However, the Bush administration has yet to make a straightforward acknowledgement of its own obligation to abide by Sunday's election results in the event of a Sandinista victory. Instead, the White House has violated the regional peace plan by maintaining aid to the Contras throughout the Nicaraguan election campaign. They were to have been disbanded in return for the Sandinistas' acceptance of the terms of a new election.

Now, before Sunday's vote begins, is the time for President Bush and other administration officials to drop their coy disclaimers and face up to their moral responsibility. The terribly costly civil war in Nicaragua has gone on far too long, thanks to a succession of misdeeds and miscalculations in Washington as well as Managua. Nicaraguans desperately need to reconcile their differences and begin the long process of healing the physical, psychological and economic scars created during a decade of war. It would be tragic if one final bout of stubbornness on the part of the Sandinistas or the Bush administration destroyed the bright prospect of Sunday's election.