HAVING SAID THAT, we have to add that the vote in Nicaragua last Sunday was not encouraging. The Sandinistas produced a big turnout -- easy in Central America where the democratic tradition is weak and the power of official suggestion is strong. They also produced a big victory. That too was easy: the major opposition didn't run, and while the minor opposition had a fling in the media, the Sandinistas alone control mass organizations and used them to bring in a landslide -- although it was not one of those 99.93 percent Soviet jobs.

The main reason the major opposition did not run was that the Sandinistas cheated -- with mob violence, logistical harassment and on-and-off censorship. It is true, as some have charged, that certain American officials quietly encouraged some in the Nicaraguan opposition not to take part, although it's not at all clear that this kept the Nicaraguan opposition from joining the elections. The Sandinistas are tough customers with a Marxist-Leninist streak, and the opposition had reason to doubt their good faith. Still, this American dabbling created a damaging suspicion of American maneuver which remains part of the post-election scene.

But a requirement to keep seeking reconciliation in Nicaragua also remains part of that scene. Politically underdeveloped countries consumed by externally fueled civil wars need to negotiate as well as vote. El Salvador's elected government is now talking with the armed left elements, which shunned the last elections. Managua is talking with its political opposition but has yet to match President Duarte and address its armed opposition. The latest scare in Nicaragua indicates that it's more necessary than ever.