KWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA, DEC. 17 -- Riot police fired dozens of volleys of tear gas today to disperse about 2,000 rock-throwing students who began gathering in the center of this opposition stronghold to protest yesterday's bitter election defeat of favorite son Kim Dae Jung.

This city, scene of some of the most ferocious antigovernment protests in the past, was bracing for a possibly larger outbreak of violence on Friday. Students and members of the defeated opposition are scheduled to hold a rally then to protest what Kwangju residents say was massive election fraud by the ruling party on behalf of its presidential candidate, Roh Tae Woo, who won the country's first direct election since 1971.

The rising tempers and the sporadic street battles, which continued into the night, seemed to be the exceptions to what so far is an unexpected mood of resignation, accepting that even if isolated cases of voting irregularities did occur, Roh's victory margin was too wide to attribute to election-rigging.

"The people here are confused," a second-year college student said.

Today's demonstrations were far smaller and more tame than expected, particularly compared to the street protests of June. Also, some longtime observers here noted that today's protests seemed confined mainly to student groups, attracting few local residents. Most of them darted into stores and restaurants with handkerchiefs covering their faces to avoid the choking tear gas.

"We want to go out and protest, but they are firing tear gas everywhere," said a florist in the southwestern section of town. "We can't do anything."

Others, however, remained defiant and promised to take to the streets.

"If the people continue to protest, Roh will have problems," said a supporter of Kim who owns a record and video shop in the same part of the city.

"I don't think this election was very fair," said the Rev. Byun Han Kyu, a Presbyterian minister. "I guarantee we will have violent action, demonstrations in the street. This will not be temporary. It will continue for a long, long time."

While most of those residents who were asked accused the government of massive cheating, their anger appeared somewhat tempered by fear that popular protests may bring only violence. Most residents here said they did not want to see a repeat of May 1980, when Kwangju rebelled against President Chun Doo Hwan's military government and troops responded by killing hundreds of people. Since then, the Kwangju massacre and a desire for retribution have become the driving forces behind this city's politics and its militant rejection of the military-dominated regime.

"I really wanted Kim Dae Jung to win this election, but I don't want any kind of demonstrations," said drug store merchant Chung Shook Ja. "That means I don't want another May 1980."

Kwangju residents gave more than 90 percent of their vote to Kim Dae Jung and, driven by their regional pride, seemed convinced that the rest of the country would follow the trend. With Kim placing third, behind Roh and rival opposition leader Kim Young Sam, Kwangju has begun casting about to place the blame.

A few here blame the two opposition Kims for failing to rise above their own personal ambitions and the demands of their followers and settle on a single candidate. "I don't think this election was fair," said a laboratory technician at a private medical clinic here. "But there was a failure of unification by the two leaders of the opposition."

"If Kim Dae Jung had dropped out of the race, he would have been a hero -- a bigger hero than if he were the next president. But instead, he chose the path of stupidity," said a young graduate student who works part-time as an English translator.