JOE Concepcion is a pudgy, wealthy businessman who lives in one of Manila's most exclusive walled villages for the rich, in a house whose decor seems frozen in time - the mid-1950s.
Joe is obsessed. His passion: clean elections, a subject he discusses endlessly and earnestly, fidgeting as he talks as though the words don't come out fast enough to express his emotions.
Joe is the head of Namfrel, the National Citizens' Movement for Clean Elections. Namfrel plans to field 200,000 volunteers on May 14 in an effort to keep the elections for the new National Assembly fair.
The volunteers will watch polls and accompany ballot boxes to the municipal headquarters for counting. Before the election, they plan to monitor registration of voters and the printing of ballots.
Joe's commitment to clean elections has led him to be dismissed as naive by some people, as connected with the CIA by others, and as a disguised opposi-tionist by government supporters.
These descriptions are in a way understandable.
''Naive,'' because of the enormity of the task Namfrel has set itself: The movement's volunteers have already unearthed evidence of what seems to be massive electoral fraud in recent years.
''Oppositionist'' because of Namfrel suspicions, which its leaders are beginning to voice openly, that the ruling KBL (Tagalog initials for Movement for a New Society) fixed previous elections and may be planning to do it again.
And ''CIA'' because of Namfrel's ancestry. The original Namfrel, founded with the encouragement of the Central Intelligence Agency's Edward Lansdale, helped in the upset victory of Ramon Magsaysay in the 1953 presidential elections. Mr. Magsaysay is still remembered by many Filipinos as the American boy, chosen and molded for the presidency by the US. (Magsaysay died in a plane crash in 1957.)
Concepcion is aware of his problem. The movement tried desperately to find another acronym, he says, but the alternatives were too cumbersome.
Namfrel does bear some resemblance to its ancestor. It, too, is composed largely of middle- and upper-class professionals. It is supported by the Roman Catholic Church and groups like the Rotarians. And it has recently received a little discreet encouragement from the United States.
The encouragement came from William Kimberling, a Federal Electoral Commission staffer and adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C. Kimberling was in the Philippines for a US Information Agency speaking tour on the US presidential elections. But he has also advised foreign governments, among them El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama, on election systems.
Among the concepts he suggested during a chat with Concepcion was indelible ink that would mark a voter's hand for up to 48 hours after balloting.
The US Embassy denies having any hand in the Kimberling-Concepcion talk. ''Serendipity in action,'' is how an embassy spokesman described it.
The indelible ink idea left its mark. Concepcion is trying to obtain it from Colombia - with the assistance of the cardinal there - or from the United States. Ink from Colombia, he says, will cost about $42,000: Indelible felt tips from the US will cost about a quarter of a million dollars. But, Joe says, felt-tip pens cannot be spoiled so easily.
INDELIBLE ink may not, however, be enough to keep the elections clean.
The last couple of elections have been surrounded by controversy and claims of fraud. This was especially true of the 1978 elections for the interim National Assembly, which the late opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. contested from inside prison. At that time, the reported anomalies included flying voters (voters who were paid to cast ballots at more than one precinct), ballot stuffing, and vote counters throwing away opposition votes.
Namfrel computer calculations made recently suggest that the fraud was even greater than expected.
Using the results of the 1980 census, Namfrel projected the current voting population - adults over the age of 18 - and compared this with the number of people registered.
In Metro Manila, Namfrel claimed, 1.3 million more people were registered than were qualified to vote. The number of voters, in other words, had been inflated by 37 percent.
In Makati, the capital's business center, for example, Namfrel says the total of qualified voters is 234,379. But 434,065 voters are registered.
A new election law has been passed for the coming election. Among its key provisions are a new registration of voters and the representation of the contending political parties on various bodies handling registration, polling, and vote counting.
MANY nongovernment people who are following election preparations closely are not convinced that the law will make much difference. They say it has at last three weak points in which wide-scale abuse could occur: during registration, the printing of ballots, and the counting of votes. Registration took place over the last two weekends of March. The first round, Concepcion says, was a disaster. The second was slightly better, thanks to roving teams composed of representatives of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), Namfrel, and the police.
The big problem was flying registrants. The going rate for multiple registrants in one part of Manila, Namfrel says, was 21/2 pesos (18 cents) for the first eight times, 5 pesos thereafter. In some places Namfrel found piles of registration forms, already countersigned by Comelec representatives and local representatives of the political parties. All the forms lacked was the name of a voter.
In one place, Concepcion says, Namfrel found that 27 people had registered, all giving the same address. They also gave the same birthday. ''No imagination, these people,'' Concepcion says.
But the flying registrants were well organized. A source close to Namfrel says the organization believes that 15,000 blank registration forms had been filled out in the office of the vice-governor of Metro Manila, Ismael Mathay Jr.
Mr. Mathay, an ardent supporter of Imelda Marcos, is one of the ranking KBL candidates in the capital. His aides say he wants to top the polls.
(One of his opponents, S.P. Lopez, former rector of the University of the Philippines and a former foreign minister, has already pulled out in protest at the way the campaign is being waged.)
OTHER problems are looming. Namfrel staffers say they have heard rumors that some ballots have already been printed, without Namfrel supervision, in private printing houses.
And, it seems, Namfrel will not be the only citizens' group watching the polls on voting day. It will probably be joined on the day by the Movement of Voters for Enlightenment and Reform (Movers) - an organization apparently founded a few weeks ago.
The Commission on Elections has given Movers poll-watching rights like those of Namfrel. This, Concepcion says, is strange: In the past only one organization has been recognized as Comelec's citizens' arm. The opposition press in Manila says that the guiding spirit behind Movers is a former staffer at the presidential palace.
Privately Namfrel workers fear that Movers will be used to confuse the issue on polling day - perhaps even fix the elections.
But who exactly is trying to fix the election? Vicente Jayme, a prominent businessman and vice-chairman of Namfrel, chooses his words carefully.
Both the opposition and Marcos's KBL may have the inclination to cheat, Mr. Jayme says. But does the opposition have the capability?
Commenting on the widespread fraud Namfrel claims to have found in the first weekend of registration, he says, ''It's very unlikely this could be done by the opposition. They just do not have the machinery in place. We have to look at KBL candidates or the party itself.''
JOE Concepcion does not seem to have lost faith. But some of his volunteers, soured by the election experiences, are talking of boycott.
And part of the opposition continues to criticize him.
''Namfrel,'' wrote Teodoro Locsin, one of the most respected newsmen from the pre-martial-law period, ''rests on the assumption that a true election is possible . . . under a dictatorial regime. Its complicity in the perpetuation of a myth is clear.''
During a recent press conference, a Namfrel volunteer glanced at Joe as he delivered an impassioned attack on the ''irregularities'' during registration. ''These elections are going to break his heart,'' he said.