Aquino's Successor

MORE than three weeks after the May 11 elections in the Philippines, the vote counting plods on. Ballots for more than 17,000 national and local candidates have had to be tabulated throughout the far-flung archipelago, a process impeded by the nation's crude infrastructure.

The official results may not be announced until late June, but the independent "quick count" projects the winner of the seven-candidate presidential contest to be Fidel Ramos. Though he was one of the generals who helped former president-turned-dictator Ferdinand Marcos impose martial law in 1972, Ramos turned against Marcos during the tumultuous events of 1986, when outgoing President Corazon Aquino took office. As armed forces chief of staff and then defense minister, Ramos is credited with foiling sev en Army coup plots against Mrs. Aquino, who endorsed him.

If Ramos is in fact certified the winner, it will be a modest but still significant victory for Philippine democracy. The nation could have done worse. Ramos's "conversion" to constitutional government seems sincere. In a political system rife with corruption, Ramos has not used office to enrich himself. And the West Point-trained former officer, who is well known in Washington, has the best chance of repairing relations with the United States, which were strained by the eviction of US forces from Philip pine bases.

Ramos is not a visionary, though, and - like Aquino - he may have neither the will nor the political backing needed to push through the economic and social reforms needed in this poor oligarchical country. At a time of extraordinary dynamism throughout much of East Asia, the Philippines are sinking deeper and deeper into third-world gloom.

Yet democracy has hung on in the Philippines - no small accomplishment, and one that should be regarded as Cory Aquino's political legacy. The election has not been tainted by the massive vote fraud some people predicted. The Philippines has earned the continued support of the US.

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