TWO years ago El Salvador's government promised its people that it would hold a presidential election at this time. With considerable pressure from the Reagan administration it has followed through. It is too early to know how democratic the election actually was. In the next few days observers who were in El Salvador during the Sunday voting can be expected to weigh in with their observations. As the dust from the often-confusing election settles, the broader picture will emerge.
In any case the election encompassed only the spectrum of candidates from moderate to ultra-right wing. It was boycotted by guerrillas, who feared that if their representatives had tried to participate in the process, they would have risked their lives.
Whoever the eventual winner, it will be some time before it becomes clear whether the election proves to have achieved the broader results the Reagan administration hopes for. The administration sought election of a government which would have much stronger support from both the Salvadorean citizenry and its Army.
The current Salvadorean government lacks strong popular support. In addition, the military is not willing to fight vigorously to save it - which is essential if the guerrillas are to be defeated.
Further, the Reagan administration realizes that if Congress is to be willing to provide adequate military and economic aid, the El Salvador government needs to be seen as legitimate within the United States, too.
Early indications are that, as anticipated, moderate Jose Napoleon Duarte and rightist Roberto D'Aubuisson won the largest numbers of votes Sunday, but that neither won the required majority. If that proves the final result, there will be a runoff in a month.
Washington would prefer a Duarte victory. It would find the situation extremely difficult should D'Aubuisson win. His extreme rightist views and alleged links to death squads are anathema to the administration and, especially , to Congress, which could be expected to respond by severely crimping US aid to El Salvador - or cutting it off entirely.
The administration has achieved one of its objectives, the apparent chaos and confusion notwithstanding, in the simple holding of an El Salvador election despite the civil war.
In different ways both the guerrillas and the government contributed to the election problems in this small country, slightly larger in size and population than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
The guerrillas sought to disrupt balloting by cutting electricity, taking peasant's identification cards, mining roads, and burning ballot boxes.
For its part the government contributed to the confusion by establishing an exceedingly complicated system of voting. Each citizen was required to go to a specific polling place within a designated town, a task compounded by difficulties imposed by the war. As a result, many people who tried to vote never did find the polling place where they were supposed to be registered.
Thus the holding of some kind of election has carried strife-ridden El Salvador another step onward - though how far forward and what pitfalls still remain are not yet certain.