If the Philippines is to survive, drastic economic and political changes must accompany a genuine democratic renaissance. The road to stability will not be easy. Even with a peaceful democratic transition, poverty will not vanish. For the immediate future, the greatest danger remains the extensive power of President Ferdinand Marcos, power granted under the 1973 martial-law Constitution. Under this document, he can bypass the National Assembly and rule by decree.
By ignoring the Assembly, Marcos could proclaim the triumph of form over substance. He could rely on the Constitution to guarantee his power, unchallenged by the results of the recent May elections in which opponents won a number of seats. For those who braved election-day fears, it would be a clear sign that democracy was a goal devoid of hope.
The impediments to a renewal of democratic rule are considerable: Now in the background but growing steadily in strength are the rebels - the Marxist New People's Army. Operating in the impoverished countryside, their numbers have grown. Estimates of armed strength exceed 10,000. And caught in the middle, between the Marxists and the Marcos regime, are 50 million Filipinos, for whom daily survival has become an increasingly bitter struggle. Upon them the burdens of Mr. Marcos's monumental misrule - including a $25 billion foreign debt - have fallen.
As evidenced by their overwhelming participation in the May election, their desire for democratic reform is real. Yet, democracy alone cannot feed a single village.
America for its part must continue to pressure Marcos to restore a credible system of democratic checks and balances, pressure that some government sources say has been exercised in recent months through quiet diplomacy. Simultaneously, the United States must emphasize to both the regime and its competitors the importance of sweeping change - ranging from land reform to meeting basic nutritional and health standards.
The US has an opportunity to play a constructive role. American influence in its former colony remains powerful. Unfortunately, for the last several years American policy has too often been tailored to the personal needs of President Marcos.
In 1972, when Marcos initially declared martial law, Washington quietly acquiesced. In 1983, when the regime demanded a steep increase in ''rent'' for US bases on Philippine soil, assistance was quickly raised by $400 million over the preceding agreement. In the end, this policy has served the best interests of neither the US nor the Filipino people.
In short, what must evolve is a policy that links US assistance - military or economic - to both democratic reform and genuine national progress, such as the viability of the National Assembly and a demonstrable increase in nutritional levels.
Undoubtedly, critics will object that such conditions interfere with Philippine internal affairs. They do. The US, however, has never left the political life of its former colony. From crushing rebellion back in the 1950s and '60s to supporting the pro-American Marcos, America's imprint has been indelible.
What is unique is that America's participation is often expected, and sometimes welcomed, by the Philippine people. Since 1946, Filipinos have never quite broken the paternalistic habits of the past. For example, a statehood movement has recently resurfaced, reflecting both current dissatisfaction and an enduring belief in American infallibility.
The example is extreme, but the underlying emotions are not. Despite the strain of recent years, caused largely by a blanket US endorsement of Marcos, many still respect America and American decisions.
Yet, even that affectionate reservoir has limits. America's failure to act wisely could rudely reveal what those limits are.