Philippines Turnaround

FILIPINOS are casting their votes for more than a new Congress and thousands of local officials this week. They are also indicating their support for the reform program of President Fidel Ramos, who has done a remarkable job of steering his country toward greater prosperity and stability during nearly three years in office.

President Ramos's methods are classic ''liberal'' economics: a more open economy, with protectionist barriers down and foreign investors actively courted. The Philippines had 5.1 percent economic growth last year, with 6 percent predicted for this year.

Ramos is concentrating on the country's tattered infrastructure. Roads and airports are being improved; Subic Bay, the largest physical reminder of the long American stay in the Philippines, is being recycled as an industrial park.

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Even with economic gains, however, the problems remain profound. Poverty grips tens of millions of Filipinos, and up to one-third of the population is thought to be chronically underemployed. Malnutrition is endemic.

But the central fact of Philippine politics, right now, is the country's revitalization -- the hope, at least, that the ''sick man of Asia'' label can be put off and a relatively well-educated populace put to work.

A former general, Ramos has been able to reassert civilian dominance after years of coup threats from renegade officers. He has also challenged the old economic oligarchies, taking such steps as opening up the country's communications system to competition.

Ramos's skills face a crucial test in meeting the threat of continued Muslim rebellion on the southern island of Mindanao. Somehow, a dialogue will have to be joined with the rebels, who demand autonomy.

Philippine politics, unfortunately, retains its violent side -- there have been a number of killings during the campaign -- but the level of violence is down.

The country has at least the beginnings of a rebirth, and if Ramos is able to continue and deepen his reforms, the Philippines' new sense of direction should extend beyond his six-year term.

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