In the streets, in the outdoor markets, in the U.S. Embassy here -- and today at polling places throughout the country -- one hears again and again that "Honduras is different."

It is a statement as much of aspiration as of fact.

The people of Honduras, the prospective civilian government leaders and the military who have been the de facto government for the last eight years all want Honduras to be different from the violently divided countries that border it.

In a tentative step toward nonviolent change, Hondurans voted today for a 71-member constituent assembly that is to chart further possible changes. Voter turnout appeared to be substantial. Clear results are not expected until Monday.

The United States, which is increasingly at odds with the repressive right-wing rulers of neighboring Guatemala and the left-wing rulers of Nicaragua and is struggling to support a weak military-civilian junta in El Salvador, wants to make sure that Honduras stays different.

"There is not doubt," said one diplomat, "that Honduras' stability and peace are very important to the United States. People who in El Salvador, Guatemala and for years in Nicaragua would shoot at each other sit down and talk in Honduras."

U.S. Embassy officials have been doing everything in their power to see democracy appear healthy and workable to the 3.5 million people of this most improverished Central American nation.

In a effort to prevent the violence that has plagued its three neighbors from spilling across the border into Honduras, the United States is supplying $3.9 million in military aid and military training teams to the Honduran Army.

A second rationale for the military aid favored by State Department officials in Washington is that an Army receiving supplies from the United States may more easily be persuaded to support the U.S. desire for democracy.

This line of reasoning came late to U.S. policy in El Salvador, where fraudulent elections in 1972 helped destroy whatever popular faith there might have been in the democratic process and bolstered the increasingly powerful leftist militant and guerrilla organizations there.

In Honduras, the power of a tiny rich oligarchy is less extreme than in neighboring countries. There are not the divisive issues of acculturating a large Indian population as in Guatemala, the corrupt family dynasty of Nicaragua under the Somozas or the overpopulation that plagues El Salvador. n

Labor movements, brutally suppressed elsewhere, gained strength and public approval in Honduras during the mid-1950s and continue to be a major force. Government corruption is a recurrent and sometimes destabilizing political problem, but massive repression is not.

As yet, no major guerrilla groups are operating in the country.

But Honduran and U.S. policymakers say all that could change if today's election fails to lead to a popularly supported democracy. There is hope, but not certainty, that they will.

U.S. diplomats have used the example of El Salvador's fraudulent 1972 elections and their consequences as a prod to encourage more liberal attitudes in the Honduran political power-structure.

But, as one foreign observer said, "Some politicians are still talking about the old-time political verity that could buy off the peasants and march them to the polls like sheep and that was all you needed for a working political majority."

There are some positive signs. Government officials point to a record voter registration of more than 1.2 million people. A substantial portion of these are young Hondurans who have never had a chance to vote before and may defy predictions by helping defect the powerful conservative Nationalist Party.

But most leftist or potentially powerful reformist parties have either boycotted the electoral process or, like the Christian Democrats, been barred from it on technicalities. Hence, this round, an election of the assembly that will then draft a new constitution, already excluded some of the country's most important political elements.

There have been widespread allegations of fraud, especially against the Nationalist Party, with some estimates running as high as 30,000 fradulent or irregular voters. Only about 7,000 have been struck from the rolls, however.

Careful voting procedures have been instituted to try to prevent fraud at the ballot boxes.

In recent days the military, prodded by the United States, has begun pressing for direct presidential and congressional elections as a next step in the development of Honduran democracy. Such elections would include the parties barred from participation and would implement a new electoral law, presumably to reduce the Nationalist lock on the voter registration process.

Theoretically the decision to carry out further elections would be up to the constituent assembly elected today. Both the Nationalists and Liberals have indicated that they will directly appoint their own president if their party wins a substantial majority.

One influential member of the current military government dismissed these plans, however. "The Nationals and Liberals talk that way, but they are not so foolish as to go against the wishes of the Army, the Honduran people, and the United States."