Ferdinand Marcos has looked remarkably healthy in recent weeks, judging from large color photographs that have appeared on the front pages of government-controlled newspapers. The pictures show the Philippine President swinging golf clubs and donning warm-up clothes for early morning jogs.
But exercise may not be the key to Marcos's apparently renewed vigor.
He has taken heart in a case of disunity that continues to afflict his many political opponents. In recent weeks there have been no signs of remission, as opposition leaders have agreed only to disagree about whether to participate in coming elections.
In a plebiscite to be held Jan. 27, voters will be asked to approve constitutional amendments which will include a new succession plan worked out by Marcos's ruling New Society Movement.
The plan is reportedly influenced by United States officials, foreign bankers , and leaders of Filipino industries critical of the Marcos regime. According to the plan, if the presidency is vacated before the expiration of Marcos's current term in 1987, new elections for president and vice-president will be held within 60 days. During the interim, the speaker of the legislature would serve as acting president.
Marcos abolished the vice-presidency when he declared martial law in 1972, and more recently left succession arrangements to an executive committee whose members have included First Lady Imelda Marcos and Prime Minister Cesar Virata. The committee would be formally abolished with passage of the amendment.
An election for the 183-seat national assembly, the Batasang Pambansa, is scheduled for May 14 this year. Since voting is mandated by law in the Philippines, it was regarded as significant that in a pastoral letter read in churches across the nation a week ago last Sunday, the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference, under the leadership of Jaime Cardinal Sin, advised Filipinos that voting should be ''a matter of individual conscience'' in ''these far from normal times.''
In late December and early January, a flurry of meetings of the top leadership of the two principal opposition groups, the United Nationalist Democratic Organization (UNIDO), and Justice for Aquino Justice for All (JAJA), served only to highlight a widening gap over the election issue.
In interviews conducted while those meetings were in progress, leaders representing a cross-section of the opposition, including former Senators Lorenzo M. Tanada and Salvador H. Laurel, and the slain leader's younger brother Aqapito (Butz) Aquino, offered similar critiques of the Marcos regime but presented vague and often conflicting plans for the months ahead. While maintaining that their collective cause was gaining momentum, each of the leaders lamented that they have not been able to resolve personal differences or adopt a coordinated strategy in the five months that have elapsed since the assassination of former Senator Benigno Aquino.
Two leaders call for a boycott of the plebiscite and the elections. They are former Sen. Jose W. Diokno, chairman of JAJA's executive committee and leader of the Movement for Philippine Sovereignty and Democracy; and Tanada, JAJA national chairman and president of one of JAJA's member groups, the Nationalist Alliance.
Aquino, a JAJA leader who organized an ''opposition congress'' earlier this month, said he favors a boycott if Marcos fails to acceded to the congress's demands. These include the repeal of the President's power to legislate and make appointments without legislative consent, and the creation of new voters' lists to replace those used in two previous elections regarded as fraudulent by most critics of the regime. Laurel, the president of UNIDO, said he endorses the demands, but firmly backs participation in the 1984 elections regardless of Marcos's response. So far, Marcos has agreed to only one demand, ordering a new registration of voters during the third and fourth weekends of March.
Laurel expects that UNIDO, a coalition of 12 political parties, will be able to successfully field opposition candidates in May despite its weak organization at the local level and the growing consensus against participation in the elections. In addition to Tanada and Diokno, former Sen. Jovita Salonga, in exile in the US, and former Philippine President Diosdado Macapagal have come out in recent weeks for a boycott.
Dioikno and Macapagal have spearheaded a separate effort which has culminated in the drafting of a national constitution which they feel could be the basis of a transition government should Marcos be forced to step down.
Laurel said he would be faithful to an agreement he made with Benigno Aquino in June of last year. The two, meeting in Boston, where Aquino had been living in exile since 1979, ''agreed to field a slate of candidates in 1984 and campaign for them together,'' Laurel recalled. In recent speeches Laurel has equated participation in the 1984 elections with the fulfillment of Aquino's wish to achieve national reconciliation without bloodshed. Like other opposition leaders, he has called for Marcos's resignation, but notes this is ''a maximum position.''
''Marcos is not a man who is going to give up power,'' Laurel said. ''He's going to die with his boots on.
''The opposition boycotted the 1981 presidential election, and where did that get us? Marcos remained President. I think, for this reason, we have to give the parliamentary process one last chance. If Marcos plays it dirty, it will be bloody, and could explode into a full-blown revolution.
''If we can elect a majority in the Batasang, we could revive the pre-martial law constitution and initiate impeachment proceedings against Marcos. At the very least, if we win, say, 40 percent of the seats, we will have one foot in the door. If Marcos should die, we would then be in a position to win a majority ,'' Laurel said.
Tanada and Diokno do not believe the elections will be conducted fairly, however, and have indicated that they will boycott any election held during Marcos's presidency, regardless of the opposition's chances of success.
''Our participation would legitimize the Marcos government, a government based on the 1973 Constitution, which was never duly ratified,'' Tanada said. ''The Batasang is a rubber-stamp assembly. It is useless because Marcos has the power to dissolve the assembly, to legislate without the Batasang's consent, and to issue decrees affecting basic civil liberties. Furthermore, in past elections , he has cheated - not only in the manner of voting, but in the reporting and computation of results. Why should we participate in something that is futile?''
In a position paper issued last month, Diokno claimed that the Marcos government was ''using the issue of elections to defuse the people's demand for (Marcos's) resignation (and by) the US government to bait the opposition into accepting the 1973 Constitution, thereby legalizing all the agreements and concessions it has obtained from the Marcos government.''
In his paper, Diokno also links participation in the elections with tacit support for ''the continued presence of US military bases'' in the Philippines, and to ''the economic policies of the World Bank and the IMF which have aggravated poverty, increased unemployment, depressed real income and wages, devalued our currency externally, and debased it internally.''
Aqapito Aquino, who has risen to national prominence since his brother's death, espouses what he considers a middle-of-the-road position. ''We can deal with the bases later,'' he said in a recent interview. ''What we need now is a consensus, an avenue for reconciliation. The first item on our agenda is to fight Marcos. We have been discussing too many secondary issues.''
While opposition leaders continue to sort out their differences, rally organizers have been attempting to devise new strategies for the first months of 1984. A leader of the August Twenty-One Movement (ATOM), a group of some 300 business executives named after the date of Aquino's assassination, said the group's aim would be ''to drastically alter the nature of future protests'' with a ''militant'' campaign of civil disobedience.
ATOM sponsored two sit-down demonstrations in late December, trial runs for what it hopes will be ''a new phase of our militant yet non-violent strategy,'' according to one organizer. A civil disobedience campaign is now being planned to capitalize on layoffs and factory shutdowns that have already begun and which many economists and businessmen here expect will continue into the first quarter of 1984.
Some activists, meanwhile, have begun to publicly express their concern about a loss of momentum in the opposition movement. A young executive, who, like thousands of others, became active in the movement after the Aquino assassination, said he was concerned that people were beginning to grow tired of ''ridiculous festive rallies.'' The issues, he noted, were ''getting muddled and the people are laughing at us.''
A JAJA organizer said that young people were ''getting restless, and becoming more radicalized.'' He predicted a period of chaos similar to the one that preceded the declaration of martial law in 1972 ''if the economy does not improve in the early part of 1984.''
For its part, the Philippine government has taken issue with the gloomy economic forecasts for early 1984. Officials say they expect 100,000 layoffs in the first quarter, although independent analysts suspect the acutal number may be closer to 400,000.
The government has also warned demonstrators that its policy of ''maximum tolerance,'' as it has been described by Marcos, applies only to those who do not violate the law.