WASHINGTON has persuaded President Marcos of the Philippines to announce a general election to take place probably Jan. 17. The profound hope is that this announcement will defuse domestic political unrest in the Philippines and head off what many fear might turn into a landslide to communism. Needless to say, it is assumed that a communist revolution in the Philippines would end that country's long association with the United States and force American armed forces out of major sea and air bases in the Philippines.
Is this going to be too little, too late,as has happened in other potentially revolutionary situations? Iran is a case in point. The US is another. There are plenty of examples in history of cases where compromise and reform might have headed off revolutions, had compromise and reform come soon enough.
There are two such situations in the world today which are moving toward the crisis stage. The other is South Africa, where parliamentary by-elections last week have slowed the pace of the white concessions to black radicals.
Those by-elections cost the governing National Party one seat and reduced its majority in three other constituencies. The result indicated that the white population is reacting to recent unrest by moving away from reform. President P. W. Botha recognized the meaning of the election returns by issuing new rules and regulations which give the police the power to prevent news coverage of future rioting and repression.
President Botha had been practicing what he called ``reform.'' For the moment at least there is obviously to be more stonewalling and use of military force and less reform. White resistance to reform has hardened. Black dissatisfaction is increasing and so has the rioting. For the first time, that rioting has spread into white areas. Six whites are now among the nearly 800 persons killed over the past 15 months.
Black discontent spilling into white neighborhoods marks a new phase in the rising black rebellion. Until recently black action was limited to trying to take military control of their own townships or neighborhoods. They have moved to the offensive. The amount of unrest is enough to begin to put an expensive strain on the white police force. The cost of apartheid is beginning to be a serious budget consideration.
The situation in the Philippines is different. The cleavage is political and economic, not racial. The issue is between a privileged ruling oligarchy clustered around the person of President Marcos and the mass of the people. The danger to the US is that US association with Marcos tends to identify the US with the regime.
The main purpose of US policy of recent weeks has been to so disassociate the US from the personal rule of the one man, Marcos, so that a new government would not necessarily and automatically be anti-American. The fact that Marcos has been persuaded to announce an election after receiving a personal emissary from President Reagan should help.
In the Philippines the question is whether the announcement of the election is enough to revive the possibility of a new democratic and pro-American regime coming after Marcos. Will it be too little and too late, or reform in time? The fact is that Washington is doing its utmost to push Marcos to a fair election, which in turn can mean a peaceful transition to a better government, or at least to one more responsive to the needs of the Philippine people.
In South Africa it may be too late for a peaceful and orderly transition from apartheid to black participation in government. Whites have become more intransigent. Blacks have tasted rising expectations. They now expect some day to govern the whole country. Impatience is growing with rising expectations.
I have been reading over the story of the American Revolution. As late as 1774 the ideas of rebellion and independence were unthinkable to the overwhelming majority. Only a few radicals wanted independence. The mass wanted reconciliation.
A wise government in London could have avoided the American Revolution. Later British governments, having learned wisdom from the US story, met similar problems differently. It was the last revolution against British rule. There were many peaceful evolutions.