SANTIAGO, CHILE -- When the newspaper La Epoca first hit the streets here in March, many people believed that it would give the opposition the voice it needed to unify Chileans against President Augusto Pinochet.

La Epoca, however, has attracted far fewer readers and advertising than expected and might be forced to cease publishing early next year.

Chile's other opposition newspaper, Fortin Mapocho, which began publishing daily in April, also faces severe financial problems that could require it to shut down next year.

The newspapers' problems reflect the difficulties that the opposition is encountering in trying to persuade Chileans to support a return to democracy after 14 years of military rule.

La Epoca began appearing only after its owners won a two-year court battle with the government, which controls the country's three television networks. Chile's existing newspapers were in the military's corner. Pinochet apparently feared that La Epoca would greatly boost the struggling opposition movement.

Opposition leaders certainly believed so, saying the newspaper would significantly amplify the reach of their prodemocracy message.

The paper has failed to meet expectations, however, and the opposition has been unable to mount an effective campaign against Pinochet, who is expected to call a national plebiscite for next September that, if he wins, could keep him in power until 1997.

Independent analysts and officials from La Epocha and Fortin Mapocho agree that both newspapers have been victimized by the political apathy gripping Chile.

Even though Pinochet fares no better than 20 percent in popularity polls, the opposition has not been able to capitalize on this: street demonstrations are infrequent, and Chileans seem to prefer talking more about financial worries and sports than politics.

Analysts blame the apathy on the military's depoliticization of the country, skepticism that Pinochet would voluntarily give up power and a lack of confidence in the divided opposition. As a result, they add, there is not much of a market for antigovernment newspapers.

"The problems with the newspapers reflect continuing skepticism of the opposition," said Edgardo Boeninger, a leader in the Christian Democratic Party.

La Epoca is linked with the centrist Christian Democrats, the country's largest political party, while Fortin Mapocho is seen as a socialist newspaper.

With La Epoca $1 million in debt and losing about $100,000 every month, the newspaper was almost closed last Friday.

It was at least temporarily saved when executives agreed to implement a plan to raise more than $2 million over the next two months by selling bonds in the newspaper to the general public, cutting employes'salaries by 30 percent and trimming operating expenses.

La Epoca's publisher, Emilio Filippi, said he was optimistic that a massive publicity campaign would persuade Chileans to buy the bonds.

"If we've failed to raise the necessary money in 60 days, the newspaper could close," he added.

Fortin Mapocho, which also is deeply in debt and losing about $30,000 per month, has enough money to last the year, but Sergio Bitar, a member of Fortin's board of directors, said the newspaper is seeking additional money from current financial backers in Europe.

Opposition leaders said the closure of La Epoca and Fortin Mapocho would damage their campaign to persuade Chileans to oppose Pinochet in next year's plebiscite.

The closing of La Epoca would not just affect the opposition by taking away its voice, said Juan Gabriel Valdes, president of an opposition think tank. "The other newspapers, which have been forced to improve their political coverage in order to be more competitive, would reduce by half the number of articles they print on the opposition," he said.