After 18 years of military-dominated governments, Hondurans voted today for a civilian president and incomplete returns indicated an overwhelming rejection of the party most closely associated with the armed forces.

Liberal Party candidate Roberto Suazo Cordova led the National Party's Ricardo Zuniga, long associated with the ruling military establishment, by a margin of more than 9 percent with less than 20 percent of the votes counted.

There is widespread hope here and in Washington that this first in a series of Central American elections over the next few months will help start a stabilizing trend in this troubled region.

Honduras, about the size of Tennessee, is the least developed of the countries on the isthmus between North and South America.

There have been pressures to cancel or postpone the polling from some segments of the military and their political allies, who are reluctant to surrender power. Gen. Policarpo Paz Garcia, the current president, won overall military support for the vote -- with U.S. encouragement.

Gen. Paz was a member of a three-man junta that seized power in 1978 after a predecessor was implicated in a bribe scandal involving an American-owned banana company. While military rule here often has been termed inept, it has not been repressive in comparison with that of nearby countries.

The fact that today's elections took place was looked on by many as a positive sign. "If they couldn't take place here, how could they take place in El Salvador and Guatemala?" one diplomat asked this afternoon.

The Hondurans, acutely sensitive to the troubles of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and increasingly drawn into them, are hoping that the elections will help immunize this impoverished and relatively tranquil country from revolution and repression.

Over the past weeks, security forces have reported what they call leftist and Nicaraguan Sandinista plots to undermine the election. In one incident a presumed leftist hideout was raided and two alleged leftists killed.

Reports from around the country today indicated general order and fair conduct at the polls despite some fraud charges. Numerous international observers attended at the invitation of the government, including two U.S. Republican congressmen and former attorney general Ramsey Clark.

Yet here in the capital, and in the countryside, there is evidence that despite the hopes pinned on the elections, manipulation, demagoguery and over-simplification remain characteristic of Honduran politics.

The 1.5 million voters in the population of 3.7 million were offered a choice among four main parties, each with candidates for congress, mayoral races and the presidency.

With illiteracy about 50 percent -- the annual per capita income is $565, the second lowest in the hemisphere -- voting was for party tickets by putting an "X" beneath a party's symbol.

Despite the participation of the reformist Innovation and Unity Party and the Honduran Christian Democratic Party, the campaigning was dominated by the two traditional parties dating from the last century, the Nationals and the Liberals.

Neither Liberal Suazo Cordova, 54, nor National Zuniga, 64, has broad personal appeal. Both are considered conservative.

But the campaigns have been waged more on the basis of name-calling than issues, with the Nationals referring to the Liberals as communists and the Liberals accusing the Nationals of corruption.

This morning in the little town of Marcala, about 40 miles northwest of Tegucigalpa, the streets were full of peasants. Most had come from the countryside on trucks, waving the colors of the Liberals or the Nationals.

Petrona Gonzales, 76, had walked an hour from the tiny village where she lived to vote in Marcala. She was the 200th woman to reach the poll. Dressed in tattered clothes, with a towel and straw hat on her head, she said it was her first experience in voting.

After showing her identification card, she approached the makeshift curtain of the voting booth with the look of a woman being led into a trap.

Afterwards, when asked why she voted, she said: "Oh, one has to. It's necessary to come. I have faith in God."

At the crowded National Party headquarters nearby, an official explained, "The party is the only party that won't play with the communists. And for that we are said to be the party of God."

Local Liberal Party Leader Rolando Melgham, a prominent coffee grower, laughed at such talk. Far from being communists, he said, "the people here who live better are all Liberals." His party promised everyone a raise in salary.