San Salvador — ''I don't believe it's too late to find a political solution to the conflict here,'' says Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes, the gravelly voiced secretary-general of El Salvador's Christian Democratic Party.
''No one can finally say what it is they are fighting for,'' he says. ''No one knows the future, and because of this we have hope.''
Mr. Prendes, like many of those close to Christian Democratic presidential candidate Jose Napoleon Duarte, wants many of the people who turned their backs on the political system here and joined the insurgent movement to come back into the Salvadorean government.
Many of the leaders of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, the political arm of the guerrilla movement, were once proteges of Prendes and Duarte.
The Christian Democrats rarely condemn their colleagues for joining the insurgent forces and often recall them with warmth, even with admiration. Prendes himself was forced underground to operate what he calls ''the Party of the Catacombs'' from 1977 to 1979. Duarte spent eight years in exile after participating in an abortive 1972 coup.
''Guillermo Ungo,'' Prendes says, referring to the president of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, ''is a man who believes very deeply in democracy. One hopes if we can build a legitimate democratic government, Ungo and those around him can come back into the country to participate.''
Prendes speculates that Ungo and some others in the Democratic Revolutionary Front are being ''used'' by the five guerrilla commanders who make up the leadership of the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front. (The revolutionary front is the political arm and the FMLN the military arm of the Salvadorean rebel movement.)
''The FMLN is made of Marxists who need the veneer of democracy to legitimize their attempts to grab power,'' he says. ''If they win a military victory, Guillermo Ungo will be lucky to get a visa back into the country.''
In contrast, Prendes says, the Christian Democrats and the Salvadorean military can have a smooth working relationship under a democratic structure.
''We (Christian Democrats) can give the Army something positive to fight for. We can make them the protectors of institutions which are built for the people and not the wealthy elite and military,'' Prendes says.
The Christian Democratic leader says Salvadoreans ''do not feel any sentiment when they see the guerrillas crush the armed forces, but a fair system of government can change this.''
Eduardo Molina, another key Christian Democrat, sees the Democratic Revolutionary Front as an ally, not an enemy, in the struggle to block the Marxist guerrillas and ultra-rightists from achieving total control of El Salvador's government.
''I think the FMLN guerrillas know that their most dangerous opponent will ultimately be the FDR Democratic Revolutionary Front),'' Molina says. ''They realize that they can never give Ungo real political power, because a pluralistic democratic society will not be conducive to a Marxist regime.''
''If we continue to attempt to resolve the conflict militarily, we will lose, '' Molina says. ''Only a dialogue and eventual incorporation of democratic elements of the left into our ranks offer any exit for us now.''
This incorporation, according to Molina and Prendes, would isolate the Marxist insurgents and remove their democratic facade.
Molina's and Prendes's party has paid a heavy price for its democratic aspirations.
Duarte estimates that 600 party members, including 32 mayors and five top party officials, have been murdered since 1980. ''We believe,'' Duarte says, ''most of these murders were committed by the right.''
Christian Democratic officials say that - despite the potential for a smooth working relationship - the armed forces present a major obstacle in the way of the Christian Democrats to achieving power and social change.
''Certainly there are many elements in the Army that consider us a threat,'' Prendes says, ''but I am hopeful that both soldiers and officers, through political indoctrination, can come to understand that there are other things to defend besides their power.''
''Democracy,'' Prendes contends, ''is a difficult concept to understand but once understood and acquired, it will never be lost.''
The Christian Democrats began a model land redistribution program when they held power in 1980. But ''sadly,'' Prendes says, ''the Army never understood the plan, and destroyed it. We (Christian Democrats) wanted to give land to the peasants and then hand them the arms to defend it. We knew they would defend their fields, but the Armed forces are afraid to give weapons to civilians. They must accept that this is the only way we will defeat the insurgents.''
Prendes and Molina contend that the guerrillas probably will not defeat the Army on the battlefield, but the Army, they think, could collapse from its own isolation from the populace and a lack of motivation to fight.
The Christian Democrats promise to provide strong support for the faltering agrarian reform. They have also called for an overhaul of the judicial system.
''We want a Supreme Court that is capable, not politically in tune with those in power,'' Prendes says.
The Christian Democrats promise, if they win the presidential election, to put security forces under the control of the attorney general. The intelligence and investigative branches of the National Police would be closed down, according to party officials, and the unit would deal primarily with traffic violations.
''We have been here for 20 years,'' Prendes says, ''and it was our party that was a major factor in raising the consciousness of the population. With severe rightist repression, the leftists capitalized on our work. We were ourselves badly splintered and broken, but we continue. Perhaps if we win, those who are in the hills will realize that what seemed impossible before is possible now.''