This week's election in Nicaragua was neither as good nor as bad as partisans on either side would have it. But international observers of varying political stripes seem to have turned their election-watching into a plebiscite on President Reagan's Central America policy.
Many liberal observers, for example, can be seen around the capital acting like political groupies of President-elect Daniel Ortega Saavedra, and his brother Humberto, Nicaragua's Army chief. They seem to feel morally obligated to justify Nicaragua's election to forestall any further harassment of Sandinista Nicaragua by the United States. Many of them share the Sandinistas' view that the Reagan administration's next step might be an invasion.
Conservative and pro-Reagan observers, on the other hand, are grasping at every negative straw to portray Nicaragua's flawed election as the type of fraudulent vote found in the worst totalitarian states. They seem to be trying to discredit the vote in order to justify whatever big-stick measures the Reagan administration may be inclined to take.
Still other diplomatic observers and even top Nicaraguan opposition leaders think the main criticism to be leveled here today is that the Sandinistas do not yet have the political maturity to ''bite the bullet.'' That is, they do not seem able to make the political concessions necessary to obtain a social pact with the disaffected opposition.
And yet the Sandinistas do realize that they must reach some agreement with the private sector and the middle class to regain the financial backing of their Latin American and Socialist International allies if they are to withstand US pressure and survive.
The opposition asked for three months of unhampered campaigning, followed by some type of power-sharing arrangement that would have left the Sandinistas in control but given the opposition a little piece of the political pie. The essential thing was to prove the Sandinista's good faith. All the players were to be assured that Nicaragua was heading in the direction of a somewhat more radical Mexico-style government rather than a Cuban-style regime.
Today, many observers here share opposition leader Arturo Cruz Porras's hope that the relatively moderate Ortega brothers - who will be more firmly in control as a result of the election - will be able to nudge the dialogue with the opposition toward success.
''I put a lot of importance on what Daniel Ortega as president of Nicaragua wants to and can do,'' Mr. Cruz says. ''If he can and wants to badly enough, he can lead us out of the imbroglio we are now in.''
Some thoughtful observers here are left with many questions about the election. They wonder whether the two major opposition candidates did the right thing in withdrawing from the election. And they are asking themselves why the Sandinistas hampered campaigning in August and September only to open up the political process in October.
The Sandinistas charge that opposition leaders Cruz and Independent Labor Party leader Virgilio Godoy Reyes were manipulated by the US and that they withdrew from the election because they knew they would not win. The opposition denies this charge.
In order to answer these questions, one must take a close look at Nicaragua's condition.
The campaign began on Aug. 8 and for the first two weeks the unprepared opposition parties were basically inactive. When they did begin campaigned toward the end of August, their campaign faced face intense Sandinista harassment. The breaking up of rallies and the harassment of campaigning workers was neither brutal nor systematic enough to be called totalitarian, but many thought it similar to Somoza-style pressure.
The Sandinistas' bad behavior reached a crescendo in late September when main opposition leader Arturo Cruz returned to Nicaragua and toured the country for a few days before leaving.
October was considerably better. Overt harassment ceased. Although the underlying political control that the Sandinistas have on the country continues, voter turnout has been large (some 80 percent of those registered).
On balance, even opposition figures such as Mr. Godoy point out that the elections were probably far less oppressive than those in El Salvador and Guatemala to which the US has given its blessing.
The Nicaraguan population today is a divided one. No one knows how much support the Sandinistas exactly have but many observers estimate that they command the allegiance of more or less half the population.
There is discontent in Nicaragua, but the basic problem is that even under relatively good electoral conditions the opposition may not have been able sway enough support to its side.
Forty-five years of Somoza family dictatorship prevented a traditional oligarchic political system from developing modern representative political parties. More than five years of Sandinista rule further stymied full development of representative parties. Parties were allowed to exist but were not allowed to organize or campaign.
When the electoral campaign opened earlier this year, the parties were not ready. This is partially their own fault. Opposition leader Cruz was being urged to go leave his job at the Inter-American Development Bank to return to Nicaragua. Cruz was urged to organize the opposition and to start negotiating last February and March for proper electoral conditions.
But he waited for a more formal call from the opposition parties, which did not come until July.
And the parties wasted valuable time bickering among themselves and waiting for a clear cue from the US government about whether they should participate in the election, a cue that never came.
Many observers believe that Cruz made a mistake in withdrawing from the campaign at the end of September.
One view of the election was given by the secretary- general of the ruling Social Democratic party in the Dominican Republic, Jose Francisco Pena Gomez. He said: ''There were many flaws in the election, but when a government opens up the system a little bit and there is a crack in a previously shut door, what the opposition has to do is to push against that door with all its strength to open it some more.''
Mr. Pena recalled that in the 1970s his political party ran against incumbent President Joaquin Balaguer, who ran the country like a dictatorship. He said that the conditions faced by his party were far worse than the Nicaraguan oppostion faced in these elections. In addition, his party bore the affront of the US calling Mr. Balaguer's government a ''model of democracy in Latin America ,'' when in fact, according to Pena, Balaguer's government ''killed several thousand people in the '70s.''
One factor, however, which differentiates the Nicaraguan from the Dominican sitaution is that the more conservative elements of the opposition are waiting to be ''saved'' by the US Marines and are more interested in depriving the Sandinistas of legitimacy than in pushing open any political doors. The next few months will show what happens to the crack in the political door that this election has provided.