Manila — The nationwide plebiscite being held today in the Philippines is a test of legitimacy for the government of President Ferdinand Marcos. Voters are being asked to approve constitutional amendments restoring the office of vice-president and shifting representation in the National Assembly (parliament) from a regional to a provincial basis. Proposals concerning rural land reform and public housing for the poor are also on the ballot.
The public, however, has shown little enthusiasm for the referendum. Some opposition groups have called for a boycott of the referendum as well as of the parliamentary elections scheduled for May, arguing that participation in both would ''legitimize Marcos's authoritarian regime.''
The level of voter turnout is certainly to be taken as a measure of support for Mr. Marcos. This is the first national poll since the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. last August 21 and its subsequent outpouring of public suspicion about the circumstances of his death.
(Government officials said they expected 80 percent of the nation's roughly 30 million voters to turn up at the polls, reports UPI.)
The Justice for Aquino Justice for All movement (JAJA), which led numerous well-attended anti-government rallies late last year, will hold a long-distance run today and tomorrow to show their indifference to the ''useless'' plebiscite. Dubbed the ''Ignore Run from Tarlac to the Tarmac,'' the run covers some 200 km. (125 miles) from the town of Tarlac in central Luzon, the birthplace of Aquino, to the the tarmac of the Manila International Airport, where he was shot.
(Former President Diosdado Macapagal commented Wednesday that a boycott of both the plebiscite and the May elections was the only way to restore democracy, ''short of a bloody revolution.'' According to UPI, Macapagal said participation in the plebiscite ''means saving the (Marcos) dictatorship.'')
Since late last year, however, most Filipinos have turned their attention from the protest rallies to the economic crisis which has drastically eroded their purchasing power and has resulted in massive labor lay-offs.
And the opposition's attention at the moment is focused on the election for the National Assembly (parliament). They have presented Mr. Marcos some last-minute non-negotiable conditions for participation, including additional changes in the Constitution. They have agreed to give the President until Feb. 14 to meet their demands before deciding whether to boycott the May 14 elections.
The opposition's indifference to today's plebiscite is ironic.
It has long demanded of Marcos that he resolve the succession issue, having claimed that he intends to perpetuate power by passing on the helm to his influential wife, Imelda, who is Minister of Human Settlements and Governor of Metro Manila. Foreign creditors, with whom the government is currently negotiating for debt rescheduling, have also pressured Marcos to provide for a categorical succession procedure.
Another amendment up for popular approval provides for a smaller constituency basis for future elections. Opposition parties themselves have battled for this amendment since it would improve their opportunities for winning seats in contests with the extensive and well-managed campaign machinery of Mr. Marcos' ruling New Society Movement.
The continuing disarrary in the opposition camp is seen as a major victory for Mr. Marcos, whose political decline seemed certain last year following the public outcry over Aquino's murder.
The tensions unleashed by the slaying amplified demands for political change from the legal opposition, the powerful Roman Catholic church, the business community, and even from Mr. Marcos's own close ally, the US government. The ailing and seemingly alienated President reluctantly conceded to several of their demands, mainly an independent inquiry into Aquino's death and the clarification of the succession issue. He has also been forced to reaffirm that the Assembly elections in May will be free and fair.
Mr. Marcos's recent political turnabout, helped not only by the opposition's disarray but also by a restful stay at his mountain retreat in Baguio, has strengthened his reputation for performing best in a crisis.
He now appears to be a long way from giving up. While he has given ground to his critics, he may well have gained more room for maneuver.