THE sound heard in Washington these days is the collective sigh of relief following the peaceful transition of power in the Philippines. We have been privileged witnesses to a historic moment. On Feb. 7, more than 90 percent of the eligible voters in the Philippines went to the polls to elect a president. They did so in the face of widespread official intimidation. Many risked their lives, and some lost them, in attempts to protect the sanctity of the vote from tampering, ballot box stuffing, disenfranchisement, and phony tallies by the Marcos regime. The opposition refused to accept this blatant attempt to steal the election and mounted a campaign of nonviolent protests including rallies, boycotts, and civil disobedience, mobilizing millions of people. Finally, millions of unarmed civilians overwhelmed and paralyzed the military apparatus of the government and sent Mr. Marcos into exile.
It is a great human drama, and one in which the United States has a vital interest. Beyond the US military bases, beyond the links of language and democracy, there is a bond between our two peoples born of shared sacrifice. US and Filipino soldiers fought side by side during World War II. Together they shared the retreat down the Bataan Peninsula, the gallant stand on Corregidor, and the bitter battles to retake the Philippines from the Japanese. The Filipino people retain a deep affection for America, as reflected in the care and attention they continue to give the cemetery in Manila where 17,000 American servicemen are buried.
US foreign policy played a secondary but nevertheless crucial role in the successful transition to the Aquino government. Credit goes to both Congress and the administration. Congress provided the pressure over many months for a clear US message to Manila that the Marcos regime must either clean up its act or face a withdrawal of American support. The White House and State Department delivered that message. Throughout this difficult and delicate process, a remarkable bipartisan consensus was formed, and it held together.
The success of recent days solves none of the underlying problems confronting the Philippines. It does provide an opportunity finally to address them. President Aquino faces an intimidating agenda. The armed forces has a senior officer corps staffed with Marcos loyalists. Years of political interference and neglect have dangerously eroded the level of professionalism, morale, and efficiency.
Neither Mrs. Aquino nor any of her close advisers have military expertise. As a consequence, she will be dependent on two late converts to her movement, former Marcos Defense Minister Enrile and the chief of staff, General Ramos. General Ramos is highly regarded as a professional military man, but Mr. Enrile's close ties to the former regime raise doubts about his ultimate loyalty to the new government.
The economy has declined sharply in recent years under the impact of falling export revenues, corruption, waste, and capital flight. In this area, however, Mrs. Aquino is well served by very capable advisers, several of whom have been named ministers in the new Cabinet.
A more subtle and perhaps difficult problem is genuine political reform. Mrs. Aquino and the people around her come from the same traditional economic and social elite that has ruled the Philippines since Spanish times. The few are rich and powerful; the many remain poor and powerless. These fundamental social inequities have fueled the communist insurgency. If political stability is to be achieved, the political system must become much more responsive to the concerns and grievances of the common person. This may prove Aquino's greatest challenge -- can she translate the populism of her campaign into a system of governance?
Giving urgency to all these problems is the communist insurgency, which is active throughout the country and has been growing at a rate of 20 percent a year. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the Philippines, and of US interests there, rests on whether the Aquino government can show tangible progress over the next year or two in addressing the nation's problems, thereby undercutting the popular appeal of the Communists.
I am optimistic that it can. Mrs. Aquino enjoys enormous goodwill throughout Philippine society. Whereas Mr. Marcos was the perfect foil for communist propaganda, Aquino is untarnished. The Roman Catholic Church is unreservedly committed to the success of the new administration. Many of the insurgents have been motivated more by hostility to Marcos than by sympathy for communism. The church believes that many of these people can now be persuaded to come out of the hills. The failure of the Philippine Communist Party to support Aquino, plus the Soviet Union's incredible blunder of siding with President Marcos just as his regime was collapsing, will surely weaken the political appeal of the extreme left.
Most important, Mrs. Aquino has exhibited qualities of character and leadership that have surprised even her closest associates. Make no mistake, Cory Aquino is a very tough, intelligent woman, who has shown a natural aptitude for politics. Many political leaders fail to make an effective transition from the campaign stump to the administrative office. But Aquino seems genuinely unimpressed by the flash and glitter of the public spotlight. From all indications, she is prepared to work hard at the nitty-gritty business of making the government work. I am also convinced that she is a good friend of the US and that she fully appreciates the importance of the US military bases in the Philippines for both ourselves and for her nation.
We have been very fortunate. Recent developments in Manila have been the best we could have hoped for -- perhaps even better than we deserve. There is no guarantee of success, but if we work closely and sympathetically with the new government, I believe we can write an inspiring new chapter in the history of our relationship with the Philippines.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D) of Vermont is the vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.