SANTIAGO, CHILE -- Time and again, opinion surveys here turn up the same paradox.

They show that most Chileans want to depose Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who has ruled this South American country for 14 years, and that a majority of people also expect Pinochet to win a nationwide vote for president next year.

The contradiction between desire and expectation reflects a national syndrome mixing hope and despair.

Locked into a constitutional timetable that he endorsed, Pinochet is unusually vulnerable to defeat in 1988 in the single-candidate plebiscite. But with less than a year to go before the vote, which probably will be in September, the political opposition is still divided. Its bickering is a source of discouragement for many and an easy target for Pinochet's barbs.

"If Pinochet wins next year, it won't be because he is a genius but because of the opposition's own problems," said Jose Tomas Saenz, president of the small, center-left Humanist Party.

About the only thing that Chile's dozen or so fractious opposition groups have agreed on recently is the need to coordinate voter registration drives. Their reasoning is that the larger the number of people registered, the higher the anti-Pinochet vote will be and the harder it will be for the government to rig the results.

But there is no single opposition candidate to inspire the nation and stand up against the 72-year-old Army general. Nor is there any joint political program around which all or even the majority of Pinochet's critics can rally. No broad front exists linking the main opposition parties, and no sustained commitment to protests has been demonstrated.

Yet all opposition leaders long for more unity. They say it would reassure voters who don't like Pinochet but fear the unknown. It would rebut Pinochet's constant charge that placing the country in the hands of the opposition would produce chaos. It might even encourage the commanders of the armed forces to call open elections next year, or at least nominate someone other than Pinochet to run in the yes-or-no plebiscite.

Politicians, diplomats, academics, journalists and others here offer various explanations for the inability of democratic forces in a country that once boasted South America's longest democratic tradition to pull themselves together.

Some say Chile's political spectrum, as wide as any in the world, defies unity. Too many moderate parties have been trying to occupy the same political space. Moreover, the moderates cannot agree on how to relate to the large, well-organized, but now banned, Communist Party.

Others contend that the rigid authoritarian climate of the past decade has made it impossible for new democratic leaders to emerge, thus leaving most parties managed by aging leaders incapable of rising to challenge Pinochet. The old politicians spend hours in a never-ending debate over "who lost Chile." Blame gets shifted variously between the Christian Democrats, who governed in the 1960s, and the Communists and Socialists under Salvador Allende, who was elected president in 1970 and overthrown by Pinochet three years and many sweeping reforms later.

Many Chileans also complain that opposition leaders spend much of their time gossiping about other politicians and seem to put their own political ambitions ahead of the national welfare. Rather than concentrate on the immediate task of ousting Pinochet, they often appear to be jockeying for power in some imagined post-Pinochet era -- what one politician described as a tendency to eat one's turkey before putting it in the oven.

"The first principle in a war is to defeat the enemy," said Ricardo Lagos, a leader of the moderate wing of the splintered Socialist Party. "You can count your losses afterward. But if no party is willing to risk its soldiers, there's little chance of winning."

One exasperated U.S. politician said on a recent visit to Santiago, "In few countries do politicians seem so adept at outlining scenarios for the future, yet so paralyzed in carrying out any of them."

The opposition's scenarios for removing Pinochet are spelled out repeatedly in a clamorous debate that fills pages in the local press. But even this heated discussion right under Pinochet's nose has played to the general's advantage, focusing public attention more on the rifts of the opposition than on the shortcomings of the military regime.

Just four years ago, when anti-Pinochet street protests broke out after a decade of repressed quiet, many Chileans started believing that Pinochet's departure was only a matter of months away.

Since then, other tides have turned against the Chilean president. Former military dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have given way to new democracies. The Reagan administration has made clear its desire to see Pinochet step down. Fellow Chilean military commanders have suggested that Pinochet consider planning his departure from power.

But all of these developments were to no apparent avail. Next year's vote is still being held on Pinochet's terms.

The rules for the plebiscite were established by a constitution that Pinochet approved and a majority of Chileans ratified in a disputed 1980 referendum. Under it, Pinochet, in his capacity as Army commander-in-chief, is to join with the commanders of the Navy, Air Force and national police to nominate a single presidential candidate, who most probably will be Pinochet, to run in the plebiscite. The new presidential term is scheduled to begin in March 1989 and to last eight years.

If a majority of Chileans vote against the military's nominee, the constitution requires open elections within a year. Pinochet, though, would stay on in the interim.

In recent months, opinion polls have given Pinochet between 12 and 25 percent of the vote. A substantial number of Chilean conservatives remain reluctant to oppose him. They have not forgotten the traumas of the Allende years, nor have they lost their mistrust of the Christian Democrats. Their economic interests remain protected by the Pinochet regime, which has transformed Chile from a government-dominated economy to a free-market system.

This right-wing support, coupled with the continued backing of the armed forces, gives Pinochet the political force to impose his vision -- at times he claims to be inspired by God -- of what he calls a "protected democracy." He constantly belittles the opposition, manipulating its divisions and attempting to link all of his critics to the actions of the Communist Party and its military branch, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front.

Historically, Chile has been divided into political camps of the right, center and left, each constituting about a third of the electorate. Parties have been intensely competitive and sharply divided ideologically, yet dependent on coalitions for the most part to hold power.

The Christian Democrats, strongly committed to the Catholic Church's teachings of peaceful reform, now fill the center. But the right and left are cluttered with numerous parties.

The Christian Democrats lean both to the left and right. Their new leadership, under right-of-center Patricio Aylwin, is especially cool to any alliance with the left that could expose the party to government accusations of collaboration with the Communists.

But possible broader groupings run up against a wall of inhibiting conditions. The moderate right National Party refuses to join with any party left of the moderate Socialists headed by Ricardo Nunez. In turn, Nunez is reluctant to turn his back on the other main and more radical Socialist faction led by the imprisoned Clodomiro Almeyda.

On the extremes sit two major groups: the right-wing National Renovation Party, which considers itself independent but not part of the political opposition, and the United Left Coalition, which comprises seven leftist parties.

Among the moderate opposition, the talk now centers on whether to draft a common program or set up an umbrella party. The Christian Democrats are pushing ahead with the idea of a program. They have prepared a draft with seven other small parties.

The Socialists say that trying to reach agreement on a specific coalition program is bound to be divisive. So they have proposed establishing a "Party for Democracy" that would exist essentially as an instrument to defeat Pinochet in the plebiscite.

The Christian Democrats are wary of such a party, suspicious of how it would operate. Besides, many party members would prefer to preserve their identity and register their organization separately.

Nonetheless, leading Christian Democrats acknowledge that they face a serious dilemma.

"If we don't join the Party for Democracy, some will blame us for not taking steps to unite the opposition," said party vice president Edgardo Boeninger. "But if we do, others will blame us for risking the party's identity and sacrificing our own registration drive."

Political observers here detect a greater determination among some in the opposition to take more decisive action by the end of the year. But other deadlines have lapsed without much result.