Manila — Tomorrow's presidential election is a contest between emotion and a machine. The machine belongs to President Ferdinand Marcos, who has ruled the Philippines since 1965. The emotion is generated by the campaign of opposition candidate Corazon Aquino, a political newcomer who is presenting the President with his greatest challenge ever.
On Wednesday, the Marcos machine looked like it was in trouble. Around 50,000 people turned out for the final Marcos rally of the campaign, according to estimates taken before a sudden torrential rain sent people running for cover. The initial turnout appeared to be about a quarter of the crowd that had listened to Corazon Aquino in the same place the previous day.
Mr. Marcos's rally was accompanied by the usual appurtenances of his campaign. Some participants were paid attendance money of 50 to 100 pesos ($2.50 to $5), more than a worker's daily wage. Many were bused in, and many were made to sign attendance lists to prove they had come.
The decision to call a snap election just over a year before the end of his term was made solely by the President, government officials say, and was opposed by some of his ministers. By obtaining a new mandate, Marcos apparently hoped to reassert his leadership and reduce outside criticism, particularly from the United States. ``This election is 60 percent for the US,'' said one government minister.
When Marcos called the election, the opposition was in disarray. The two main leaders, Corazon Aquino and Salvador Laurel have since surprised everyone by forming a loose alliance.
Despite government claims that Aquino is backed by the communist underground, she is basically a conservative. Her backing comes from the business community, politicized by the murder in August 1983 of her husband, Benigno Aquino Jr. Backing also comes from the Roman Catholic Church and from the old elite, to which she belongs. But she has been unexpectedly successful in galvanizing the enthusiasm of ordinary Filipinos throughout the country.
By comparison with the US, Filipino elections are very imprecise affairs. Public opinion polls are few and usually partisan. Some precincts are so remote that it takes days to transport the ballots to a municipal center for tabulation.
But the size and enthusiasm of the crowds that greeted Aquino throughout the country point to an Aquino avalanche. The turnout has been described as unprecedented in modern Filipino electoral history. And some ruling party officials are beginning to admit that the vote will be closer than they expected.
There is widespread suspicion that the armed forces will be used in opposition strongholds to discourage people from voting. There are also unconfirmed reports of already completed fake ballots being delivered to opposition strongholds and of efforts to buy off opposition poll-watchers. But observers say the most widespread form of cheating is likely to be the substitution of electoral returns -- the tabulation of votes cast in each precinct -- by returns showing a government victory.
``There is no doubt that some options are being prepared by the ruling party,'' a Western observer said today. ``But their [the ruling party officials'] ability to use fraud on the level they are said to have done in the 1970s is substantially diminished.''
A key fraud-inhibitor is Namfrel, the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections. After protracted discussions described by Namfrel organizers as a rear-guard government effort to limit Namfrel's preparation time, Namfrel has been granted permission to conduct its own ``quick count'' of election results.
Both Namfrel and the official Commission on Elections will conduct counts in roughly the same way: obtaining a copy of the electoral return of each precinct and transmitting it to their respective tabulation centers in Manila. Results will be tabulated by computer. Both groups say they expect to have most of the results within 36 hours of the polls closing. Any delay is likely to mean that efforts are being made to manipulate the vote, observers say.