San Salvador — Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte has never been known to shun a fight.
And he is not doing it now in the final days of campaigning for this Sunday's balloting for a 60-member constituent assembly - a vote he called ''the first free election in the history of this country.''
Barred in theory by Salvadoran law from actively campaigning for his Christian Democratic Party, he has nonetheless been traveling all over this Massachusetts-size nation trying to get out the vote and to tell people what democracy means.
It hasn't been an easy task in a country with virtually no history of free elections, a nation that is also at this very moment caught in an escalating civil war between leftist guerrillas and Mr. Duarte's centrist government.
''The whole country has been out of order,'' he says.
But the President, looking tired from long days on the stump, adds, ''I've pledged my life and honor to the vote.'' He then promises that the whole process , and the vote count, will ''be as honest as possible.''
The election itself is crucial for Mr. Duarte. His political life depends on the outcome. The balloting will decide whether the Christian Democrats or a coalition of right-wing parties led by former Army Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson win nominal control of El Salvador's battered government apparatus.
With the campaign drawing to a close, and with no clear indication of how the vote will go, Mr. Duarte devoted much of a whole day to meeting with the foreign press both in groups and in individual sessions. He talked to hundreds of journalists drawn here as much by the civil war that threatens to engulf his nation as by the election process itself.
As Mr. Duarte sat down for an hour and a half of tough grilling by one group of foreign reporters in an ornate salon of the century-old Casa Presidencial, El Salvador's White House, units of the Salvadoran Army were locked in a gun battle with leftist guerrillas less than two miles away.
Some of the shooting could be heard as a backdrop to President Duarte's remarks. The President had little to say about the fighting, but the battle taking place in the San Salvador barrio of Colonia Modelo was only one of many battles around the country this week.
For two days a battle has been raging in and around Amatepeque, a small town just five miles from the presidential palace. It reportedly involves more than 200 soldiers. Guerrillas seem to be slipping out of the area, but no one here expects that they will allow the elections to be held in an atmosphere of calm. The Army is on full alert.
Much of the current fighting, Mr. Duarte says, is a guerrilla effort to upset the vote.
''The guerrillas are blackmailing the country. They are blackmailing the people,'' he asserts.''The communists don't want to listen to the voice of the people,'' he says.
''They don't want to let the people express their opinions and they won't accept the results of the election.''
It is, of course, possible that the right, centered around former Major d'Aubuisson, won't accept the results either if the Christian Democrats emerge the victor. Mr. Duarte won't comment on that possibility.
What he does say, however, evinces a solid belief that the elections are the logical first step in bringing peace to the country. Despite widespread criticism from abroad and the refusal of the guerrillas to participate in the balloting, Mr. Duarte holds that elections are the very ''wellsprings of democracy.''
He recognizes the uncertainties surrounding the vote, but says there is no better way to proceed. Mr. Duarte smiles little, but his eyes appear to reflect a determination to ''let the world know we are trying to resolve our problems in a democratic way.''
He rejects negotiations with the guerrillas, ''with those who carry arms,'' who, he says, want to talk about a place in government that they cannot win on the battlefield.
''Elections, however, talk,'' he affirms.
At the same time, he recognizes that the Salvadoran military and the government he heads have a poor image around the world because of human-rights violations and repression. He does not deny the validity of either accusation.
But he suggests that violence has been so much a way of life in El Salvador for generations that it is difficult, ''nay impossible'' to end it quickly. Military coups and control have also been a way of life, as has repression, throughout Central America for centuries.
''You don't emerge quickly from such a legacy,'' he says. He notes that it took the US, ''now a base of democracy in this world,'' some 50 years to curb the violence of the American West. The US ''created a number of methods to solve it,'' and it was ''a mighty struggle.'' These methods included vigilante groups, he notes.
Mr. Duarte thinks the violence will be curbed here as well, but that it will take time.
''I think the world knows we are working in the direction of curbing the violence,'' he adds.
''We know the problem and we are trying to eliminate the violence that stalks us.''
Mr. Duarte is very much aware of what is happening in other parts of Central America. In answer to questions about the coup in Guatemala, he calls it ''a symptom of the crisis that has afflicted these countries in recent decades.'' He went on to say that he hopes the coup ''will lead to a rightful solution of Guatemala's problems.''