SÁBALOS, Río San Juan – Seated onmetal folding chairs inside a plywood officeoverlooking the economically depressedtown of Sábalos, 12 mayoral candidates andtheir campaign bosses sip Coca-Colathrough straws and listen to police inspectorEfraín Marcia explain electoral proceduresfor the upcoming November municipal elections.The campaign manager for the third-partyAlliance for the Republic couldn’tmake the meeting. He is participating in aregional karaoke contest 40 kilometers upriver,in the town of San Carlos.“The goal here is to conduct the electionwithout violence or aggression,” Marcia tellsthe candidates. “We have to remember thatwe are all human, we all live here together.The election is just one day every fouryears.”SÁBALOS, home to 1,500 residents, isthe second-largest town in the municipalityof El Castillo, which sits on the Río SanJuan, just north of Costa Rica.Fifteen minutes downriver, the town ofEl Castillo is the site of the famous 1762 battlewhere Rafaela Herrera is credited withfending off British invaders when she was19. But that is all part of Río San Juan’s richpast, and the mayoral candidates are nowfocusing on the future of this river municipality.“We all want progress, we can’t viewthis (election) as a war,” says José EnriquePeña, mayoral candidate for the SandinistaNational Liberation Front.THE campaign season for the municipalelections in all of Nicaragua’s 152 municipalitiesofficially begins Monday. Although“unofficial” campaigning started monthsago in the capital and other major cities, herein rural Nicaragua, things are just gettinginto first gear.Nicaragua has only held municipal electionsonce in the 14 years since the Contrawar ended. During the 2000 municipal electionsin El Castillo, street fighting broke outafter the Sandinistas won the mayoral seat.Six people were critically injured.Municipal police want to take provisionsnow to prevent an encore performance duringthis year’s elections. Officer Marcia toldthe candidates to appeal for calm, andreminded them that the law prohibits liquorconsumption on Election Day.LIKE much of Nicaragua, the departmentof Río San Juan was torn apart by theeight-year Contra war. Many of the mayoralhopefuls, former Sandinista and Contra soldiers,were fighting each other fewer than 20years ago.Augustín Llanes, candidate for Alliancefor the Republic, claims he worked duringthe war as a double agent for the Contras.But now the war is over, and all the candidates’campaign proposals – regardless ofparty affiliation – are virtually indistinguishable.The candidates all speak of the need forwork, housing, drinking water, education,agrarian reform and foreign investment.“ALL the campaign platforms are basedon necessity,” says Llanes, owner of theMonte Cristo River Lodge.“At this point in time, there really is nodifference between the parties. It’s all aboutnecessity,” echoes former Contra soldierCalasanz Parialles, candidate for theNicaraguan Resistance Party. Pariallesfought out of northern Costa Rica under thecommand of Edén “Comandante Cero”Pastora, who is running for mayor ofManagua (TT, June 18).“The only difference between the partiesnow is that they (the Sandinistas) are rich,and we (the former Contras) are poor,”Parialles said.WITH little apparent political differencebetween the once-warring sides, whatremains to be seen is which party will beable to mobilize the most votes on ElectionDay, Nov. 7.So far, the upstart Alliance for theRepublic appears to have blanketed the variousriverside communities with the mostposters and flags, ostensibly trying to establishitself in a traditionally bipartisan system.Llanes says most voters are tired of boththe Sandinistas and the Contras (representedby the Resistance Party and the LiberalConstitutional Party) and are ready to votefor a new political party.He claims he can win the election withas few as 3,000 votes, and doesn’t plan oncampaigning in some of the more rural communities,some of which are a two-day trekinto the mountains by horse.“Most of the people here already knowme. I have lived here for five years,” he said.IF Llanes wins in November, he plans toresign from his post a year later to run forCongress in 2006. By holding a nationalpost, he says, he “could do much more tohelp El Castillo.”However, if in the next two months itappears that Resistance candidate Parialleshas an advantage over him, Llanes says hewill withdraw from the race and throw hisvotes to the former Contra.“If it looks like I have the advantage inthe next two months, he’ll do the same forme,” Llanes said.