When he was mayor of San Salvador in the late 1960s, Jose Napoleon Duarte was perhaps the most popular figure in this country. In the sprawling urban ghettos around the capital, the three most common pictures were of the Pope, John F. Kennedy, and ''Napo.''
Mr. Duarte introduced street lighting and new central markets and made the mayor's office accessible to average Salvadoreans.
This year the burly populist is a presidential candidate. But the road from mayor to this presidential candidacy has been anything but smooth. Duarte is far less popular today. He is, in fact, the common enemy of all right-wing political groups.
Duarte says this is the price that he and the Christian Democrats, a party he helped to form, must pay for backing social and political change.
Speaking to farm laborers in Santa Ana recently, Duarte promised to break the ''system of terror'' in El Salvador if he is elected president. He says he will close down the clandestine paramilitary and death squad operations and launch investigations into who is responsible for them.
He says his key opponent, National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party candidate Roberto d'Aubuisson, ''indirectly is responsible for many deaths because of his contribution to this climate of terror.''
Duarte is believed to want to open a dialogue with leftist guerrillas, although publicly he speaks of negotiations in only vague terms. Most observers would not expect him to offer the insurgents any concessions that would resolve the social conflict here. When asked about the 20-point negotiation plan put forth by the insurgents recently, Duarte says, ''It is 21-point plan. The final point, which they have not written in, is total power.''
Some question his capacity to carry through the reforms and the political agenda he espouses. His reputation has been badly damaged by his decision to remain a part of two juntas (1980 to 1982) in which some of the worst political violence in Salvadorean history took place.
Duarte's own party split when Mario Zamora, attorney general in the first and second juntas, was shot on Feb. 23, 1980. Days before the killing, Roberto d'Aubuisson went on television to denounce Zamora as a clandestine member of the guerrillas.
Duarte and other Christian Democrats threatened to resign if Zamora's killers were not apprehended. But the party later reneged on its threat. At that point, several major party members, including Ruben Zamora and Hector Dada, resigned from the government.
Duarte's decision to renege on his resignation and his role in a government that unleashed brutal internal repression has haunted him ever since.
Duarte advocates more state control over the private sector, which is dominated by a wealthy elite here. And he calls for the removal of ARENA members from the management of the government farm cooperatives.
ARENA, he charges, has attempted to sabotage the agrarian reform. He also claims ARENA officials have used their government cooperative offices to further their own political and economic ends.
While ARENA perceives itself as the vanguard of anticommunism under attack from the United States government and some Salvadorean sectors, it is in fact the Christian Democratic Party that has endured the severest of assaults of any party still existent in this country, most analysts agree.
The Christian Democratic Party, founded in 1961, was viewed by the US, after the Cuban revolution, as a kind of moderate political alternative to Marxism and military dictatorship in Latin America. It grew in political power and popularity through the '60s.
By the late '60s, the Christian Democrats had eclipsed all other political groups and were challenging the official state party, the National Conciliation Party, for control of the National Assembly.
Duarte decided to run for president, resigning as mayor in 1970 after serving six years in that post. The possibility of a Duarte victory, however, frightened the state party and the military. But on Feb. 22, 1972, Duarte was announced the winner of the presidential contest.
The military immediately imposed a news blackout. Three days later, a new set of figures gave victory to the National Conciliation Party. The legitimate winners were powerless to contest the fraud and the US ambassador, Henry Cato, abstained from taking a side in the dispute.
One month later reformist officers staged a coup, charging the new President, Gen. Fidel Sanchez Hernandez, with violating the Constitution. In the attempted coup, which Duarte joined, 200 people died and many more were killed later in reprisals. Duarte was beaten and tortured and eventually sent into exile in Venezuela.
Political life in El Salvador never recovered after 1972. Fledgling guerrilla bands began to form and many reformist sectors in the society withdrew from political life.
The military and oligarchy maintained tight control over society until the brief and last reformist effort in 1979 and 1980.
This final reformist coup would see Duarte appointed president in March 1980, but political power never left the military's hands. Officers and civilians who initiated the 1979 coup were eventually forced out of office by the ultra-rightists.
By 1982 Duarte, once again, was persona non grata. Many of those who had rallied around him in earlier years were forced into exile or killed by repeated acts of political violence. Duarte's 1972 vice-presidential running mate, Guillermo Ungo, and several other Christian Democratic officials left to join the guerrillas.
''Since 1980, when we attempted to push through needy social reforms,'' Duarte says, ''600 party members, including 32 mayors and five top party officials have been murdered. We believe most of these murders were committed by the right.''
ARENA and the National Conciliation Party attack Duarte for what they say are his close ties with the left. Christian Democratic sources and others suggest that Duarte does favor negotiations with the insurgents, although few expect him to offer any substantial concession.
''We have a political and social conflict because for 70 years we have known only brutal dictatorships,'' Duarte says. ''If we do not go forward with some real reforms with a representative democracy, there will be no hope for El Salvador.''
Speaking to farm laborers in Santa Ana, Duarte promises, if elected, to break the ''system of terror.'' He called on those in the audience not to be intimidated by the threats and coercion ARENA is using against Christian Democratic supporters.
''If there is a rightist coalition against us, all the better,'' he shouts from a podium decorated with corn cobs. ''We'll beat all of them at once.''
There is some division within the Christian Democrats about whether the elections can do any good for El Salvador.
''There is no military solution to our conflict now, unless it is a military victory by the guerrillas,'' says Eduardo Molina, one of the party leaders. ''And obviously elections will not do anything to resolve the conflict. We all wonder why the US didn't stand up for the democratic process in 1972. Perhaps then we could have done something. Elections, given the current situation, will mean nothing. . . .
''We offered El Salvador an option to communism, but now the two forces that decide the options for our country, the military and the US government, do not want us,'' Molina says.
''I fear the future.''
Rey Prendes, the secretary-general of the Christian Democrats is not as pessimistic as Molina, although he concedes time is running out.
Referring to a morale problem in the Army, Prendes says, ''If we can recapture the government and support the reforms rather than destroy them, perhaps we can give the soldiers something to fight for.''
Next: The dark-horse National Conciliation Party