On the eve of the first elections here in almost a decade, there is a mood of desperate hope in this country.

Hondurans have watched their two closest neighbors, Nicaragua and El Salvador, explode from the pressures built up by years of dictatorship. The Hondurans are hoping that by ending eight years of military rule with elections now -- even though electoral fraud and corruption are traditionally considered to be widespread here -- they can keep the winds of change sweeping over Central America from becoming in Honduras yet another storm of violence.

There is general agreement that the electoral process, based on laws promulgated by the military regime during the 1970s, has grave faults.

Three parties are contesting the race, in which a Constituent Assembly will be elected to draw up a new constitution. It will be empowered to name a president and convert itself into a legislature, or call for further presidential and legislative elections. The most powerful party, with control dating back to 1971 of more than 70 percent of local jurisdictions -- and consequently of voter registration -- is the Nationalist Party. Well-funded, close to the ruling military, and conservative, it is considered most likely to win.

The Liberal Party is the only other traditional political party in Honduras. It is moderately reformist. The last time the Liberals were in power was 1963.

The National Innovation and Unity Party is calling for the greatest liberalization of Honduran society, including the direct election of a president by the people and a new electoral process for choosing the congress. Included in the party's ranks are disillusioned Nationalists and Liberals, but its chances of winning more than token representation in the 71-member Constituent Assembly are rated as slight by most observers.

The Christian Democratic, the Socialist and the Communist parties have been excluded altogether. There are widespread charges of fraud -- of deceased voters and children on the voter registration lists.

The excluded parties have denounced the entire process. They have called for a boycott of the polls -- a crime for which 16 Christian Democrats were arrested briefly earlier this week.

Amid fears of violence against voters (a bomb was set off near the electoral committee headquarters last night), the Army will be on guard at polling places across the country. Some Hondurans worry that the presence of the armed forces may bring as much intimidation as it does safety to the hustings.

Yet those reformist politicians who have stayed in the political process remain hopeful, feeling that the elections themselves, whatever their faults, are virtually the last hope for peaceful change in this economically least developed Central American country.

"This is the beginning, the frontier between the past and the future," said Miguel Andoni Fernandez, leader of the leftist National Innovation and Unity Party. "If tomorrow appears like the past, the people will continue asking for something new, and that could be violence."

The Liberal Party, which stands the best chance of making a dent in the power of the Nationalists, is badly divided.

Although its spokesman claims the Liberals will win tomorrow, it is not certain what that would mean, even if it happens, for the country's future as a free democracy. Liberals have not indicated whether they will support direct presidential elections or not because they are hoping to appoint their own man to the post if they gain a substantial majority of the 71 seat assembly.

If the Liberals lose badly, they say, it will be because of Nationalist fraud.

"To avoid violence in Honduras, the Liberal Party has to win," said spokesman Jose Ascona. "We do not throw bombs. But somebody else probably will."

Gen. Policarpo Paz Garcia, the current military leader of the country, has called for the Constituent Assembly to push ahead for direct presidential elections in an attempt to overcome some of the deficiencies in the current process.

But if the Nationalists win, there seems like likelihood of direct elections or genuinely broadened participation.

Nationalist Party leader Ricardo Zuniga, confident of victory as he sat in his crowded party headquarters this morning wearing the same kind of blue baseball cap his party hands out to peasant voters, said he thought a general election of the president would be a bad, even a dangerous, idea.

"Everybody will get together in the Constituent Assembly. We will invite the opinions of all political parties," said Zuniga. "What object would other elections have?"

Zuniga's opponents fear that despite his party's promise to "do nothing to endanger the future of the country," the future of peaceful avenues for major changes in Honduras will have come to an end.