The candidates have come and the election posters have been pasted on the white-washed walls, but here in the heart of a traditional guerrilla bastion the campaign for Sunday's vote on a constituent assembly has been received with apathy and cynicism.

It is an attitude that grows out of a widespread belief here that peace, if it is ever to come, will result from a test of arms, not from ballots.

The common wisdom back in the capital of San Salvador, dispensed equally by U.S. diplomats and Salvadoran officials, is that guerrillas here in Morazan province, like those elsewhere in this Central American country, have lost the support of the civilians. These officials say the civilians are waiting for the elections to produce their first popularly based government since the overthrow of the dictatorship of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero by reformist officers on Oct. 15, 1979.

The truths of the capital, however, are not in evidence here where those in touch with the countryside say that the guerrillas' support is greater than ever and that their numbers, despite three big military sweeps in the past year, are at an all-time high. The rebels control at least one-quarter of Morazan, a province in the northeast of the country and one of the most sparsely populated and impoverished of El Salvador's 14 provinces.

The rebels have become so daring that they set up their own roadblocks just a mile from the city, almost in shouting distance of the defense perimeter set up by the 300 to 500 soldiers garrisoned here.

Provincial electoral officials say that because of the government's tenuous hold on the province, voting will be held in only 14 of the 26 towns. Even as they were being interviewed this weekend, word came of new guerrilla activities in Yamabal to the southwest and Yoloaiquin to the north raising doubts whether the elections could be held in those two municipalities.

Electoral officials here say they will have 20 ballot boxes with ballots available for as many as 10,000 voters Sunday. Seven parties have fielded candidates for election to an assembly that will draw up a new consititution for the country. The government has invited the guerrillas and their supporters to participate in the elections but they have refused.

Whatever the outcome, some people here say it will have no bearing on the true sentiments of the people.

"The people here have no feeling at all for the elections," said one-long term resident. "If they do go to vote at all it is because they will be scared not to. The vote will be meaningless even if it is honest."

"When you have seen so many assassinations, so many mutilations, so much cruelty and injustice, how can you believe in elections?" asked a local doctor who insisted that his name not be used because to do so "would be to condemn me to a bullet in the neck."

"I will vote because not to do so could jeopardize me, but I have no hope it will change anything," the doctor said in an interview. He talked wearily of the continuing civilian deaths, which he attributes to the Army and its ill-disciplined paramilitary subsidiaries.

"Because I have seen so much, I can't believe in anything any more," he said. "As a doctor I believe this killing has to end, but elections, where the guerrillas and the parties of the left who support them, do not participate, will not stop anything."

It is a despair that is heard repeatedly from those willing to talk with a stranger under strict guarantees of anonymity. All have their dark tales of mysterious deaths, disappearances or tortures of those who have brought about the displeasure or suspicion of the authorities.

All acknowledge the deaths of soldiers, public officials and members of paramilitary rural guards, that are caused by the guerrillas. Only a month ago they recall, the guerrillas stormed the garrison at the town of Yamabal and, in an apparent shoot-out with its commander, killed him and 11 of his men.

On the other side, there are reports of even more gruesome killings linked to the government or its supporters. All know of the recent beheading, for reasons unknown, by national guardsmen of the wife, sister and friend, of the Catholic lay teacher in the town of Cacaopera. They also speak in hushed tones of the three men in Yamabal--a justice of the peace, a rural guard member who had surrendered to the guerrillas and an unfortunate villager--who were taken away by the authorities two days after the guerrillas withdrew from the town and, according to one well-informed source, mutilated and tortured before being put to death.

One only has to stop in for mass in the packed Church of St. Francis, which shares the tiny asphalt square with the military barracks, to become aware of the extent to which violence and death have become a way of life here.

The church is filled with the grieving faces of the poor, many part of a colony of about 10,000 refugees that has swelled this town of 60,000. The refugees were forced from their villages and homes in the north, by the Salvadoran Army. One official, who deals with the refugees, calls the Army policies that drove them here nothing but a "scorched earth" policy to deprive the guerrillas of food and support. Many of the refugees in the church come from El Mozote to the north where several hundred civilians died in an Army sweep in December.

Some kneel in the aisles while others sit, heads bowed, as an Irish Franciscan priest, one of three working in this area long abandoned by local priests, reads a litany of the most recent dead--some from natural causes, the others as a result of the fighting--in whose memory the mass is being celebrated.

Dressed in purple vestments that catch the glint of a setting sun pouring into the church from its open portals, the priest speaks of God finding "the people of El Salvador today beaten, suffering and wounded by violence," as parishioners dab their eyes, nod their heads or merely stare stoically ahead.

The hymns, sung to the accompaniment of a guitar, drift out into the square to mingle with the sounds of bolts being drawn on automatic rifles as 80 soldiers returning from an ambush up north, clear the chambers of their weapons.

The town's walls show an odd electoral poster of one of the main contenders--green backgrounds for those of the Christian Democrats led by current junta president Jose Napoleon Duarte; red, white and blue for Arena, the rightist party of Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson. But almost as soon as party workers go out at night to paste up posters they are ripped down.

When Duarte came to town his appearance was outdrawn by a Lenten procession near the church. And D'Aubuisson's appearance at a rally drew only a couple of hundred of those curious enough to defy the wary stares of his personal army of bodyguards, who stood with guns cradled across their chests.