On Nov. 4, Nicaragua will hold an election. It is an exceedingly important election, both for Nicaragua and the United States. The Nicaraguans will elect a president and a vice-president to a six-year term and choose a new 90-member National Assembly to write a constitution. They hope to begin the process of institutionalizing a democratic form of government and provide for legitimate, pluralistic representation for opposing groups and political parties. They see the election as a step in legitimatizing the revolution that deposed Anastasio Somoza Debayle five years ago and in laying the structure for future government.
This in itself is important. But the meaning of the election goes beyond whatever hopes the Nicaraguans have for their revolution. The outcome of the election has meaning for peace in the region and for United States foreign policy.
The Reagan administration has been supporting guerrillas based in Honduras and Costa Rica who have been correlating a ''secret war'' against the Nicaraguans. The administration fully supports these efforts. It believes the Nicaraguan government to be ''Marxist-Leninist,'' a judgment the Republican Party's platform made back in the 1980 campaign and one it has refused to change. Reagan sees its quiet war as a test of its willingness to stop Russian and Cuban intervention in Central America. The House of Representatives has repeatedly refused to finance or allow any type of US aid to the contras. The Reagan administration says it is not trying to topple the Sandinista government - just force it to mend its ways.
If so, what better way than by supporting a full and free election? The administration has chosen not to take this path. Both President Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz have prejudged the outcome as a ''sham'' and a ''Soviet-style'' election. This is unfortunate.
The situation is complex. It is not understood well by the US public or Congress. They must rely primarily on official government channels that reflect the administration's point of view. The media have done a poor job of covering events. What they do report on are the issues framed by the White House and, more specifically, the refusal of Arturo Cruz Porras, an international diplomat and world banker, well known in Washington, to participate in this election.
This issue can be addressed briefly. Mr. Arturo Cruz is a well-liked and well-respected man in official circles both inside Nicaragua and out. The Sandinistas, for example, respect his integrity. What they question is his political judgment. He has lived outside Nicaragua for the better part of the last 20 years. He is not well-known politically, and his electoral base would likely be small. He is not the only opposition candidate. Seven political parties are now competing in the election, including the Traditional Liberal and Conservative Parties. Nonetheless, the US government and press have chosen to see Cruz as a test of how open the contest is.
Cruz is the spokesman for a conservative coalition headed to a large extent by an association of wealthy businessmen - COSEP - roughly analogous in this country to the National Association of Manufacturers. COSEP has taken a stridently anti-Sandinista position. Articulate, well financed, and unremitting in its attacks, this group represents the right wing of the Cruz position and one that under the best of conditions would be extremely hard for him to deliver , regardless of what agreement he reached with the government on the election.
La Prensa, the newspaper, is also a member of this coalition and a highly partisan supporter of both Cruz and the COSEP position. It, as with the two other major papers in Nicaragua that are pro-Sandinista, covers news in line with its editorial policy. Since La Prensa is anti-election, it does its best to ignore the election and attack the government. Consistent with its conception of duty, it refuses to publish political advertisements, including nonpartisan ads on how or where to vote.
The press as a whole in Nicaragua is extremely partisan. La Prensa fits this model. It makes no pretense to being impartial or reasonably balanced. In short, it makes no effort to present itself as a Nicaraguan New York Times or Washington Post. Yet that is how it has been pictured in the United States. In part, this reflects the role of La Prensa in the latter years of the Somoza dictatorship, when its opposition meant the life of its editor and publisher, a key step in the eventual overthrow of Somoza.
The present La Prensa is only indirectly related to its predecessor. Curiously perhaps for us, the Chamarro family, which published the old La Prensa , now has members in editorial and publishing positions in all three major dailies. The family is politically divided.
La Prensa is censored by the government. The government claims that its censorship during the campaign relates only to military or strategic matters that might assist the enemy in its war against the country. The censorship is erratic and it does appear less onerous during the campaign. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate and has helped create a repressive image for the government outside of Nicaragua.
The government feels it has gone out of its way to accommodate the Cruz faction. It delayed the registration period for political parties from July 5 to Aug. 5 and then to Aug. 20. It has recently reopened the period, setting a date of Oct. 1, which the Cruz coalition again failed to meet. The government, in turn, suspended the latest negotiations with the Cruz faction. The Cruz coalition is trying for further assurances of an open campaign and a delay in the November election until mid-January.
At this point, the government is arguing that it has gone as far as it can. The date and basic conditions for the election were set last December. Since then it has made, in its opinion, repeated concessions to Cruz and his supporters, enough in fact that the Sandinistas question whether the Cruz coalition has negotiated in good faith. So far it has refused to reschedule the election or enter into a ''national dialogue'' with the contras, a group it sees as terrorists and one with little support in the country.
The government has also agreed to sign the Contadora Treaty, limiting the weapons and military advisers available to any other government in Central America. The treaty, proposed by Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, and Colombia, is meant to ensure regional stability and peace. The Reagan administration pressured the Nicaraguans to accept it. Now that they have, the administration wants changes in the agreement before it will commit itself to supporting it. In part, the agreement could limit the US role in Honduras and El Salvador and in supporting the contras.
Where does all this leave us? The dirty war against Nicaraguan schools, cooperative farms, and public health facilities continues. The American-supported campaign of assassination directed against teachers, university students, election officials and party candidates, union leaders, health professionals, and technicians continues. Economically, the country has been bled by US efforts to destabilize an already weak economy. Medicine and hospital supplies are limited or nonexistent.
Is it in the interest of the US to continue such policies? Or is it in US interests to support the election, ensure as much freedom for opposition groups as is possible, and work with the Nicaraguans in developing a politically and economically healthy democracy? The question answers itself. Morally and realistically, the US has few options.