Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos has announced the end of martial law in his strategically important nation of some 45 million spread over 7,100 islands. This decisive action was aimed in part of protecting incoming President Ronald Reagan from criticism by Marcos's own opposition, as well as by US critics.
Critics will charge the changes are largely cosmetic. But with martial law lifted, after eight yers, Mr. Reagan will be able to improve ties with the Philippines with fewer charges of backing the authoritarian right.
President Marcos took the devisive step Jan. 17 by releasing more than 100 prisoners and transferring many crimes from military to civilian jurisdiction. But he stressed he will remain firmly in control until the May 1984 National Assembly elections.
Analysts of Filipino affairs explain that even with the new decree, the President's power will remain supreme. Presidential involvement in appointment of judges and control of village chiefs are just two reasons why.
Still the President's move is an important tactical step to prevent further polarization with the opposition. It will also make it harder for the opposition to accuse the US of supporting a right-wing dictator.
President Reagan is expected to want better relations with President Marcos than did president Carter on the grounds that Clark Air Base and Subic Navy Base are vital to US defense. President Reagan is also expected to encourage US-Filipino commercial cooperation and to play down US concern over human-rights violations alleged by President Marcos's opposition.
President Marcos's Jan. 17 declaration raised further speculation that the US government was mediating between the President and former Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr., key opposition leader now in residence at Harvard University. According to the widely respected Far Eastern Economic Review, Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, met recently with Mr. Aquino at Harvard following a meeting with President Marcos and his family in December.
It's been speculated that Marcos and Aquino may strike a deal allowing for at least the appearance of democratic rule. One aim would be to end the series of opposition bombings this fall that have discredited Marcos's opponents among many who remember the anarchy before martial law.
Still there can be little satisfaction among a large group of Filipinos who have lost faith in President Marcos, but who also see Aquino as a ruthless man out for himself.