US breathes a sigh of relief after Philippine vote

If the final results of the Philippines elections go according to present form, one of the winners will be the United States. For the past 10 months Washington has been distancing itself from the Marcos regime, pressing for clean elections and hoping for the revitalization of the political middle ground.

The elections were not exactly clean, but the middle ground does seem to have been revitalized.

Washington must be breathing a sigh of relief. This new aloofness from the Marcos government is associated in many Filipino minds with US Ambassador Michael Armacost, who left here recently, and rather unexpectedly, to become undersecretary of state for political affairs. His successor, Stephen Bosworth, is keeping a very low profile for the time being.

For much of his two years here, Ambassador Armacost was considered fairly close to the Marcoses. ''For the first year and a half,'' says Jolly Benitez, deputy minister of human settlements and a confidant of First Lady Imelda Marcos , ''Armacost was a great ambassador. After that he got emotional: He lost his ambassadorial diplomatic detachment.''

The event that changed Mr. Armacost's attitude - at least in Benitez's view - was the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. last August and the ensuing economic crisis.

Since then many US officials - both in Manila and elsewhere - have changed their attitude toward President Marcos. They became very worried about the uncertain future of the Philippines - and of their bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay.

They made little effort to hide their concern over President Marcos's health, which seemed to take a serious downturn at the time of Mr. Aquino's murder.

They fretted at Mr. Marcos's seeming inability to arrange his own succession. And they expressed even greater concern that either Mrs. Marcos or the Philippines armed forces might play a role in the succession.

Government members here feel that Armacost was personally responsible for much of the change. ''Armacost listened to quite a lot of people,'' says Mr. Benitez, ''and he got the wrong reading. We felt let down.''

Armacost was not the only US official doing some serious listening after the assassination. A steady stream of senior US officials passed through Manila. They included Gen. Vernon Walters, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, now one of the Reagan administration's ambassadors at large , and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Monjo.

One group that seems to have influenced the US quite strongly was Manila's business community. Many businessmen had social contacts with the embassy before the assassination; afterward they became the most articulate opponents of the Marcos government.

Their viewpoint - that the regime faces a political and economic crisis of confidence that can be resolved only by the disappearance of Marcos from the political stage - is not very far from that of Washington.

But the business community tends to take a more militant stance and views US hesitation with some impatience. Nevertheless, leading businessmen credit the US - and essentialy Armacost - with persuading Marcos to take a number of important steps after the slaying.

Foremost of these was the revival of the vice-presidency to replace the dangerously nebulous succession system Mr. Marcos seemed attached to. Some businessmen also feel that the US was instrumental in disouraging Imelda Marcos from running in the National Assembly elections in May.

Armacost's new position is a clear promotion: He is senior career officer in the State Department. The job, he has told Filipino acquaintances, will give him more opportunity to influence US policy toward the Philippines.

Even so, his departure from Manila is clouded by some ambiguity. Despite Armacost's protestations, there are lingering concerns here that he may have been pulled out as a result of pressure from the presidential palace.

The most likely person to have pushed for his departure is Mrs. Marcos, who does not seem to have had much affection for the ambassador. Asked about this, Jolly Benitez is noncommittal. ''Could, be,'' he says. ''I wouldn't necessarily know.''

The timing of Armacost's departure - just before the May 14 elections - did not ease speculation.

''Bewildering,'' an embassy staffer said. ''He's leaving just when he's needed to coordinate our assessment of the election.'' The embassy has been loath to share its post-election analysis with outsiders. But it is possible to guess US feelings with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

In all probability, US officials are surprised and gratified by the outcome. They probably hope that any political optimism engendered by a lively National Assembly will dispel some of the gloom hanging over the economy.

Some Western observers feel these results are the first signs of the end of an era. By 1987, when the presidential elections are due, they hope the President might retire; run for reelection and then stand down in favor of his vice-president; or might even be defeated. Some US officials probably share this point of view.

Over the next few years US officials will be watching the political scene closely for any signs of a potential successor to Marcos. And, although the US stresses its impartiality in Philippine politics, it definitely would prefer some people over others. It would probably be actively unhappy if Mrs. Marcos took over from her husband.

Neither do US officials seem enthusiastic at the prospect of Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., a rich and ruthless businessman friend of Mr. Marcos, succeeding the President.

Senior members of the government consider Mr. Cojuangco to be the current front-runner for succession. The Americans would probably prefer to see other members of the business community aspire to the position - tycoon Enrique Zobel, for example, or executive Jaime Ongpin. US officials are believed to have asked both men about their presidential ambitions.

Both are said to have expressed little interest in the position. US officials probably also hope that someone might emerge from the new National Assembly.

A likely candidate is Aquilino Pimentel, mayor of the southern city of Cagayan de Oro and leader of the fairly small Philipino Democratic Party (PDP). In recent years, Mr. Pimentel has taken a mildly anti-US position. But he was previously close to Aquino, who was not known for hostility to the US. Pimentel's presidential ambitions are clear and his politics seem quite malleable.

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