SUPPOSE THE Americas had been paying attention to the elections in El Salvador in 1972. Jose Napoleon Duarte won and was soon ousted by the military in a coup that precipitated an agony whose end is not yet in sight. One could cite similar elections in Latin America, and especially in Central America, where, arguably, close attention by other countries might have made the difference between a shaky transition to an enduring democratic process, and a coup leading to political trouble, to civil war and perhaps to outside intervention, too.

That is the special reason why the hemisphere should pay the closest heed to the elections being held today in Honduras. The country has been under military rule for 20 years. Fortunately, it has not been so harsh a regime as to provoke the tensions familiar elsewhere or to make the process of movement back toward representative government seem beyond human undertaking. Even those most suspicious of the Honduran military find little trace of the repressive disposition evident in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Honduras is relatively tranquil by the standards of Central America. It has the region's typically rickety economy, which is perhaps something of a blessing: the generals are not eager to take the rap for running the country into the ground. The civilians in the race seem to understand well the advantages of developing a political base not resting on the military. The bishops have, usefully, warned of fraud as well as of a coup.

Jimmy Carter helped ease Honduras into elections to a constituent assembly in early 1980. Now full government elections are scheduled. To calm the nerves of a military aroused particularly by events across the border in Nicaragua, the Reagan administration increased military aid, but at the same time it has preached in its fashion the gospel of elections. The House passed a solicitous resolution the other day and the Washington Office on Latin America has dispatched an observer delegation including Rep. James Jeffords (R-Vt.). Cross your fingers.