NOTWITHSTANDING 11th-hour guerrilla violence, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans may still go to the polls today. No doubt some will vote under military duress or under the impression of military duress--there will be some of each, for all the considerable efforts the junta is making to run a clean show. But many will be voting for the simplest and purest of reasons: to take some part of their destiny into their own hands. Why else would they brave the vile threats of the guerrillas? How else could they rise above their country's past electoral frauds? The voters are, in their way, the real heroes. A powerful drive for peace and dignity is running in El Salvador, and it should be evident today.

It is no surprise that Jos,e Napoleon Duarte, the president appointed by the military, and civilians like him favor elections. They are decent people and democrats at heart and they realize their country's desperate need for a government based on the consent of the governed. But it must also be acknowledged that the military command, which made a coup in the name of reform in 1979, is, by sponsoring elections, making good on its 1979 pledge. Having traditionally been the enforcers of an unjust feudal order, the armed forces have begun to explore a role as custodians of constitutionalism. Within the officer corps there are certainly hesitations--but the leadership has accepted today's test. That is a fact with consequences extending far beyond the vote.

That the election is being held in war conditions means not only that there is interference from the left. Such circumstances always confer extra advantage on the anti-communist hard right. For precisely this reason, a number of Salvadorans and Americans thought early elections would be unwise. A retired officer identified with the most discredited landlord-military elements is running, and if he does well, the United States would face the painful decision of how to deal with an anti-democrat who won by democratic means. The pre-election consideration that prevailed, however, was that it would help politically, in both El Salvador and the United States, to start the electoral process as soon as possible. If it was a risky decision, there's no going back on it now.

In Washington, there is a tendency to taunt the Salvadoran opposition for not accepting the junta's offer to lay down arms and compete in the elections. In San Salvador, that taunt is more muted. Though few there think the opposition would do well at the polls, some of the highest officials grant that, were they in the opposition's shoes, they would not have dared to disarm themselves and participate. So the elections will not produce a result fully representative of even the civilian side of the opposition, let alone the Marxist-led guerrilla command.

But what the elections may produce could be of great value: a civilian government not merely seated by the military but partly legitimized by the people. This outcome would not be instant democracy, but it could be a leadership with the confidence to test its already strong private interest in seeing whether there is an alternative to the war. To be sure, the junta, backed by the United States, has held out one alternative: inviting selected elements of the opposition to disarm and then, and only then, to join an electoral sequence run by their erstwhile foes. But that offer has been rejected.

At least theoretically, there is a second alternative. Versions of it are supported, privately, by substantial segments of the government. It is to ease the condition that the opposition must disarm and join the government's process, and instead to look for an additional process, not necessarily an exclusive one, that would inject an element of negotiation between the two sides. We note that some glint of Salvadoran negotiations is almost certainly required if there is to be any expectation of progress in the broader talks the United States has opened with Nicaragua and Cuba.

In brief, assuming a Duarte victory, the picture in El Salvador could change. A government better placed to pursue reform, control official violence and reach out to the opposition could emerge. But, granted, that is running way ahead of the story. Let's see how it goes today.