In the midst of El Salvador's civil war, the United States and this country's government are trying to hold a presidential election here. Can such a vote possibly be fair? Will the people in guerrilla-held zones or areas of fighting be able to cast ballots? Will the voting allow for a true representation of the broad cross section of the Salvadorean population?
Armando Rodriguez Equizabal thinks so. The president of El Salvador's Electoral Commission - the group in charge of the March 25 vote - points out the country has received a sophisticated array of computers and computer experts from the US to help out. The computers are making voter registration simpler to manage and will help to eliminate vote fraud.
''This election is going to be so fair,'' says Mr. Rodriguez, a member of the right-wing National Conciliation Party, ''that I'm drafting letters to (Cuban leader) Fidel Castro and (Nicaraguan Interior Minister) Tomas Borge, inviting them to come as observers.''
The US thinks it will be fair, too - at least it hopes so. The Reagan administration hopes to point to the elections to bolster its claim that democracy is taking hold in a society where political power has traditionally been held by the military and the large landowning class. Washington has given the Salvadorean government $3.4 million to help mount the vote.
Others are not so sure the election will accomplish anything positive. They note that the leftist guerrillas have already begun to paint slogans on village walls that condemn the March 25 vote.
Sixty of El Salvador's 261 towns are under guerrilla control. More than 100, 000 people live in those 60 towns, says Molina Eduardo Molina Olivares, director of the Salvadorean Institute for Municipal Administration (ISAM). It is unclear if voters in these municipalities will be able to get to polls. Until recently, government officials said they were going to make every effort to get ballots into zones of military conflict. But now the government appears to have reversed itself. According to a recent internal document from the Electoral Commission, no polling places will be set up in guerrilla-held or conflictive towns.
The logistics of voting are further compounded by the decision of the armed forces to guarantee security in some towns and not others. There will be no voting in towns where the military has not guaranteed security.
The Christian Democratic Party (PDC) contends that many of the towns the military has deemed to be insecure are in fact Christian Democratic strongholds. Something is fishy about the military's plan, they say - especially since the guerrillas have pledged not to disrupt the election.
''There are six towns in the department of La Paz where voting will not take place,'' notes Rodolfo Lizano, who is coordinating the monitoring of all Salvadorean polling places for the PDC. ''The Army says they are not secure, yet there has never, to my knowledge, been one guerrilla in these towns in La Paz during the entire civil war. They form, along with many other towns written off by the armed forces, our base of support.''
The Electoral Commission is apparently attempting to compensate for the lack of polling places in some areas. For instance, the province of Chalatenango has only three towns where polling places will be established. But these urban areas will be given many more voting places than usual so people from insecure areas can come to town to vote.
The town of Sociedad, with 7,000 people, is being provided with 55 polling booths. The small provincial capital of La Union will have 135.
''We smell the beginning of fraud,'' says a Christian Democratic leader. ''A town like La Union needs about a third of that number of polling booths. Who will vote in the rest of them?''
An equally difficult problem confronting the election planners is how to - or whether to - try to get to the polls the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the war.
The four-year-old conflict has created about 500,000 displaced persons who moved from their homes to other parts of El Salvador, according to the US State Department's Refugee Bureau. That is about 10 percent of El Salvador's population. Most of these displaced people have no personal identification - but they must show such ID in order to vote. About half have not been registered by government agencies. At least another half million have fled the country.
Despite these problems, Electoral Commission president Rodriguez says polling booths will be set up in camps and ghettos where displaced people live.
''We are going to register the displaced people and issue them state identification cards so they can vote,'' he says.
However, accoording to the Electoral Commission document, there are no plans to set up polling places in the areas where the displaced people live.
A problem that would hamper this effort, however, is the common practice displaced people have of giving the state investigators fictitious names and histories.
The two Salvadorean government agencies charged with keeping an up-to-date census of the displaced population, the National Committee for Displaced People (CONADES) and the Directorate of Community Development, have failed to register some 250,000 displaced people inside the country, according to the US State Department Bureau of Refugees.
US Embassy officials are confident, however, that the displaced population will make it to polling booths. They discount the number of residents in guerrilla-held zones as insignificant.
''We estimate only 50,000 to 60,000 people are in guerrilla-occupied municipalities,'' one US official says.
Mr. Rodriguez says, ''If you look at what we have accomplished since December , it's a miracle. The question of course is can we actually register and then provide identification cards to the displaced population before the end of March.''
ISAM director Molina thinks it will not be possible. ''The failure to incorporate the displaced population and those in guerrilla zones into the electoral process, which I think is inevitable, will mean that between 400,000 and 500,000 Salvadoreans will be unable to vote,'' he says. (El Salvador's population is 4.5 million to 5 million.)