To some, he is El Salvador's last best hope: a man who deplores violence, understands his nation's difficulties, has clearly defined goals, and thinks in larger terms than simply personal ambition or wealth.
To others, he is almost a communist in moderate's clothing: a man who has thoroughly alienated the country's private sector by helping to nationalize the banks, set up government-run marketing boards for such major exports as coffee and sugar, and undertaken perhaps the most comprehensive land-reform program in Latin America.
He is Jose Napoleon Duarte, former president of the moderate, reform-minded junta established after the overthrow of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero in 1979, and now the leading figure of the country's largest political party, the Christian Democrats (PDC).
And although he is not an official candidate in the presiil5l,0,14l,3p6 dential elections to be held late in 1983 (the PDC has yet to decide whether to run Mr. Duarte or his younger colleague, Foreign Minister Fidel Chavez Mena), one thing seems sure: The 1983 elections will bear the stamp of his ideas.
''My position is that El Salvador needs a revolution,'' the stocky, voluble former engineer said in an interview with the Monitor at his party's headquarters.
Then, with the practiced logic of one accustomed to intellectual analysis, he ticked off seven ''basic causes'' of the country's problems: a society historically divided into two tiers, lack of education, limited resources and expanding population, the concentration of riches in a few hands and ''the concentration of misery in the majority,'' foreign interference, a weakening of economic and social structures, and ''the abuses of authority'' by those in charge.
''Any one of those causes is enough for a revolution,'' he says, ''and here you have all of them.''
Despite El Salvador's reputation for vigilante violence and assassination (the courtyard of the shabby PDC head-quarters is guarded by a young man with an automatic rifle at the ready), Mr. Duarte firmly believes in elections.
Is that strange for a man who won the election in 1972 but was denied the presidency and exiled by military forces?
''We need power through reason and not through bullets,'' he explains, adding that ''I believe in a democratic revolution.''
''He is an extraordinary man,'' says a high-ranking Western official, ''one of the few people who really understands and is prepared to do something about the worst aspects of the Salvadorean military.''
But this official adds, ''His relations with the private sector are just impossible.''
Others add that Duarte's relations with the generals could be equally sour, given his belief that the military should be restructured to bring it under the control of elected officials.
During an interview that was interrupted several times by aides arranging last-minute details for a visit with European Parliament members in Belgium April 6 and 7, Mr. Duarte spoke less about personalities than issues - a notable feature in a land where, say observers, loyalties and animosities tend to follow personalities rather than institutions.
* Calls for reform of the judiciary. He advocates reform by changing the legal code in the soon-to-be-rewritten constitution, and then by ''guaranteeing a system in which a judge can act without fear.''
Part of El Salvador's problem, many analysts say, lies in the inability to bring either common or political criminals to trial because judges fear for their lives, and because, in Mr. Duarte's words, ''There is too much corruption in the system.''
* Dismisses calls for negotiations among guerrillas, moderates, and far-right factions.
''Dialogue has to have a purpose,'' he says. Duarte says talks must be ''sincere'' and not manipulative, and that negotiators have ''to have the people in mind'' rather than personal ambitions. At this time, he says, such standards ''don't exist'' on either the extreme left or the extreme right.
* Complains that the US does not have a ''united international policy'' toward El Salvador.
''Now you have five (policies),'' he said, mentioning what he sees as divergent statements emanating from the White House, Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the Central Intelligence Agency. ''The biggest power in the world is confusing the world and not leading the world,'' he says.
* Affirms, however, that US aid is needed. This aid is necessary to ''give time for the democratic process'' to work, he says.
Duarte says the Salvadorean Army needs four more US-trained battalions to guarantee the safety of the elections, now tentatively scheduled for November or December.
He praised the US Agency for International Development's support for military and economic assistance to rehabilitate abandoned farms near guerrilla strongholds in the eastern part of the country.
Will Mr. Duarte's party win enough seats to put some of his ideas into practice?
The PDC captured 41 percent of the vote in the March 28, 1982, elections, well ahead of the 29 percent won by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), whose champion is the charismatic right-wing former Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson.
So far, however, Mr. d'Aubuisson has said he will not run for president this round. Analysts here, however, say that could change. But until the slates of candidates are known, few pundits are willing even to speculate on the outcome of the election, which is planned for December.