ASUNCION, PARAGUAY -- When the party of Paraguay's president, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, split into quarreling factions this year, he did not bother to heal the wound. He simply crushed the weaker limb.

Showing the bare-knuckled force that has made him the Western Hemisphere's longest-governing head of state, the 75-year-old Army general has come down hard on what was an astonishingly large and loud movement of restless members in his Colorado Party. He has stripped of power politicians once close to him who had sought to reassert the party over Stroessner's personal rule.

The move has sent a fresh chill through this landlocked country the size of California, just as the first signs of a thaw in political expression were emerging. Preparing for a virtually unchallenged election in February to his eighth term as president, Stroessner has gathered around him those most loyal and intolerant of dissent.

Many Paraguayans fear a new round of repression and bloodshed will follow. But many also say that Stroessner will have difficulty restoring the sense of calm and submission that has reigned here for much of his 33-year tenure.

Discontent, spawned by hard economic times and the rigidity and lethargy of the ruling gerontocracy, bubbles beneath a surface image of governmental order and harmony. While Stroessner has made clear that he has no intention of relaxing his grip, Paraguayans have begun to look past him to an uncertain future.

"Things have changed, in the sense that everyone now recognizes we are closer to the end than to the beginning of the Stroessner era," said Edgar Ynsfran, a former interior minister ousted two decades ago. "When people know that, they act differently."

With the usual unanimity, a convention of more than 870 Colorado delegates formally renominated Stroessner last month. The show of unity masked what had been a bitter struggle.

With a claimed membership of 1.4 million out of 3.7 million Paraguayans, the Colorado Party has had a virtual monopoly on patronage and has served as a principal instrument of state control. A number of senior party officials had begun favoring democratic change, concerned that the party had been subsumed by a Stroessner cult.

These "traditionalists" came under attack from those most loyal to Stroessner, who labeled themselves "militants." In a bitter contest for top party positions, the two factions traded charges of fraud and betrayal and organized competing rallies around the country, providing Paraguayans with an unprecedented display of party infighting.

While both groups pledged to support Stroessner for another five-year term, they were already vying for party control in some future post-Stroessner era.

Finally, at a party assembly in August, the militants triumphed. They swept all party posts after using police to bar most traditionalists from the meeting hall. At the nominating convention last month, the hard-liners sealed their victory by naming a slate of congressional candidates devoid of traditionalists.

Stroessner gave the militants his blessing and called on party members to respect the new Colorado board of governors, headed by Interior Minister Sabino Montanaro. Some see the outcome as an effort by Stroessner to reimpose absolute control prior to grooming a successor, possibly his son Gustavo, a 43-year-old Air Force lieutenant colonel. Others suspect that the general had distrusted the traditionalists, viewing them as a threat to his leadership.

In any case, the party and the government are now in the hands of the militants, a group that many independent observers have described as as less competent and more corrupt than the Colorado norm.

The traditionalists are at a loss over what to do next. Their most eminent representative, Senate leader and former party president Juan Ramon Chaves, is in his mid-80s and appears unwilling to carry on the fight.

Police blocked Chaves in October from laying a wreath at the Pantheon of Heroes on a national day of remembrance. The police told him they were acting on a "superior order" -- meaning executive fiat.

The Colorado youth movement, which supported the traditionalists, is still resisting surrender. So are a number of other dissident Colorados who have begun urging Paraguayans to deposit blank ballots in February.

But veteran politicians who led the traditionalist movement acknowledge their defeat and figure there is little they can do against the militants. "It's very hard to fight against brute force," said Pedro Hugo Pena, outgoing vice president of the Chamber of Deputies. "To try to fight back now would be suicidal."

For some months, the intra-party battle gave other groups outside governing circles a chance to raise their own voices for change. Paraguay's tiny opposition parties held political rallies, and union groups staged their first street protests in years. Recently, the opposition united under a new umbrella organization called the National Coordination.

The Roman Catholic Church, worried about the potential for violence and for economic and moral deterioration, has begun organizing silent marches. A march here Oct. 30 attracted 15,000 to 30,000 people -- the largest public protest against the government since Stroessner took power in 1954.

Church officials also have demanded greater respect for human rights, bringingtogether opposition, labor, academic, professional, journalistic and religious groups to discuss the nation's political future.

Private business groups also are appealing more loudly for economic reforms and curbs on the contraband trade run by Stroessner's friends. Even middle-ranking military officers are said by their family members to be voicing more dissatisfaction about low pay and slow advancement in the top-heavy system.

Stroessner earlier in the year took steps interpreted by some as a possible political opening. He lifted a state of siege that had been in effect since he took power, and he let Domingo Laino, the most well-known opposition leader, return to Paraguay after six years in exile.

Officials also promised action on a new economic plan, first announced in September 1986, which foresees new incentives for investment, a reduction in the fiscal deficit and adjustments in foreign exchange rates.

In recent weeks, squads using chains and whips have disrupted opposition party meetings. Government authorities are keeping the opposition station Radio Nanduti off the air and have closed the weekly of the only legal opposition party, the Revolutionary Febreristas.

In economic policy, last year's bold plan remains little more than a stack of paper. The economy suffers from slow growth, declining living standards, rising inflation, stagnating investment and a deteriorating balance of payments.

As he has for years, Stroessner appears daily in the local media, inaugurating events or receiving visitors in the presidential palace overlooking the languid Paraguay River.

"Stroessner has reacted poorly to the new challenges; he has stayed orthodox," said Laino. "His unwillingness to change will contribute to the weakening of his own system. We may not yet be in the transition to democracy, but we are certainly on the threshold."