Victory in the Philippines

WHAT a difference a year makes. This time a year ago the Philippines was involved in one of the most scandalous electoral manipulations of all time.

Prodded into an election, then President Marcos took on a politically inexperienced Corazon Aquino for the presidency. He could barely disguise his contempt for her. But even so, his supporters brought out a deep box of dirty tricks to make sure the election's outcome went their way.

Thus thugs arrived at the polling booths and overturned ballot boxes, grinding pro-Aquino ballots into the ground.

There was intimidation to keep some Aquino voters from the polls. And some supporters of Mrs. Aquino were killed.

There were payoffs for those willing to sell their votes on behalf of Mr. Marcos.

There was falsifying of figures.

But so overwhelming was the movement for change in the Philippines that Mr. Marcos was ultimately defeated anyway.

Vote-counters disgusted with the extent of manipulation walked out. Women linked arms around ballot boxes to prevent their theft. ``People's power'' eventually triumphed over corruption and misrule, and Marcos had to flee to his own Hawaiian Elba.

A year later, the Philippines went to the polls again. The turnout was high, the process orderly, the results fairly counted. Violence was minimal.

It is being interpreted as a political victory for Mrs. Aquino, and indeed it is.

But the larger significance is that it is a victory for the Filipino people, and another victory for that surge of history that is propelling more and more of the world's millions out of the swamps of dictatorship and onto the firmer pathways that lead in the direction of democracy.

You can be sure that the Philippines outcome is being carefully considered today in such Asian countries as South Korea, Pakistan, and the People's Republic of China, each of them wrestling in its own way with forces demanding political reform.

What the rulers of these countries know is that despite the sweeping character of the Aquino victory, the story is far from over. How she handles the ongoing problems of her country within this newly won framework of democracy will have immense influence throughout Asia.

The confirmation of her new Constitution will strengthen her credibility and stability in dealing with critics from both the left and the right.

But there remains the problem of the communist insurgents; they have abandoned their brief fling with negotiation and gone underground again. And there are the serious economic problems of the Philippines, which the communists predictably exploit.

The question now is whether a democratic Philippines can prevail over such challenges.

If it cannot tame the communist guerrillas who seek by the gun the power they have been unable to win legitimately, then democracy-doubters in other anticommunist countries will be strengthened. They will be reinforced in their argument that democracy is a dangerous indulgence in the face of challenge from ruthless factions that do not play by the democratic rules.

It has been an extraordinary year for President Aquino, as her country has skidded from one crisis to another. A lot is riding on how she builds on the new mandate she has just been given. The repercussions of her performance will ripple far beyond the Philippines.

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