Philippine surprise: elections so far so clean, but opposition wary as tallies roll in

Initial results in the Philippine legislative elections surpass the worst fears of the Marcos government and the wildest dreams of the opposition. There is, however, still plenty of time for the final tally to be falsified, and many observers expect this to happen in a significant number of cases.

But the political machine of President Ferdinand Marcos's ruling party appears to have been swamped by a surge of popular resentment since last year's slaying of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.

The government, one Western observer commented, got a free election ''whether it wanted it or not.''

Both government and opposition were in a state of shock after Monday's polling. Results are still coming in very slowly. A voting-trends analysis released Thursday by the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) shows the ruling New Society Movement (KBL) with about 49 percent of the vote.

The main opposition group, the United Democratic Opposition (Unido), appears to have about 34 percent of the vote.

If sustained, the present trend would give only half of the 187 National Assembly seats to Marcos's party, with Unido receiving about one-third, and other groups dividing the remaining seats.

President Marcos, however, predicted Tuesday that Unido would ultimately have 40 to 45 seats, compared with 63 seats predicted by Namfrel. He noted Unido had done well in the cities, ''But in the countryside we have won.'' (Very few results have come in from the provinces.)

Most opposition leaders claim that this prediction can only be fulfilled by fraud. Some foreign observers share this view.

''I will be very doubtful if the opposition's share of seats drops down to 40 ,'' said a Western observer, speaking on the condition that his name or embassy not be identified. With 40 seats, the opposition could bring an embarrassing impeachment bill against Marcos.

One KBL leader said the setback was due in part to last-minute intervention by the Roman Catholic Church. ''They read pastoral letters from the pulpits advising the people to ask themselves who brought on high prices and inflation. I don't think that was fair,'' said Gerry Espina, a deputy minister and KBL candidate for Manila.

Other KBL leaders are said to see more sinister forces behind the setback.

''The First Lady (Imelda Marcos) feels that the opposition could not have done this on their own,'' said a senior KBL official who asked not to be named. ''There must have been some foreign assistance.''

Mrs. Marcos has suffered a greater blow to her pride than most KBL leaders. She personally committed herself to obtaining a clean sweep in the 21 seats of the national capital region. At the moment, according to Namfrel, KBL candidates are trailing the opposition by 16 to five.

The setback was not due to any lack of effort by the KBL. Their spending appears to have been massive. Joe Concepcion of Namfrel estimates the KBL devoted at least 2 billion pesos ($142 million) to the campaign.

In a campaign rally in the central Philippine city of Cebu the week before the election, Mrs. Marcos told the crowd she was offering ''prizes'' of 50,000 pesos ($3,500) to each barangay (village or district) and 100,000 pesos ($7,000) to each town in the province of Cebu, which delivered a straight KBL vote on polling day.

A close associate of Mrs. Marcos, vice-governor Mel Mathay, has still to answer charges that he withdrew 40 million pesos from the account of the Metro Manila Commission - the body that administers Manila - a week before the inaugural KBL election rally in March. (The chief lawyer of the commission said recently that Mr. Mathay would only need to account for part of the withdrawn amount. Some of it was for ''intelligence purposes'' and not subject to further inquiries.)

Mathay planned to obtain a clean sweep of all six seats in Quezon City, in the northern part of Manila. Currently, however, he is running third in polling - the only KBL candidate in the top six.

Widespread signs of irregularities and fraud on polling day - almost all attributable to KBL supporters - suggest they were as active as in the 1978 election.

Irregularities noted by this correspondent included intimidation of voters, purchase of voting affidavits - the proof a voter needs to cast a ballot - intimidation of opposition poll-watchers, and the presence of local officials, along with their bodyguards, in several voting centers.

Elsewhere in Manila there were reports of armed men snatching ballot boxes or bringing in their own boxes and then demanding these be counted. Commenting on the polling at the end of election day, one veteran election observer here remarked that this election had been ''as blatant if not worse than 1978'' - the benchmark for rough elections here.

The decisive difference so far this year has been Namfrel. With its network of chapters in all but 15 of the 187 seats at stake, and its computerized tabulation of the returns, Namfrel has provided faster election coverage than the government. It has also provided the embarrassment factor: Its regular updates of vote-counting in each constituency have provided the basis against which other figures have to be measured - or explained.

The US Embassy here seems delighted with Namfrel's performance so far. The battle, however, is far from over. A number of experienced election-watchers expect that efforts will be made to alter election returns - tallies of votes compiled by each precinct - in the next few days.

The counting in two large areas of Manila - Makati and Quezon City - is currently the subject of numerous allegations of irregularities.

One informed source, intimately acquainted with the workings of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), the theoretically independent supervisory body for elections, says it will not be difficult for the ruling party to obtain more blank copies of the official returns. Comelec still has some in its stores, the source says, and five of the seven commissioners are closely linked to the President.

Election materials were printed this year in five private printing presses. Three of these presses, the source says, are owned by three commissioners. The source claims the two other presses were owned by close associates of two other commissioners.

The five commissioners also profited by overpricing the materials, according to this source.

About 45 million ballots had been printed at a cost of about 30 centavos each: ''They probably made about 35 percent on that,'' the source claimed. If correct, this would amount to about 4.73 million pesos ($337,000).

''They have a lot to thank the government for,'' the source said. Actual manipulation of the returns, however, would not be done by Comelec, the source stressed.

''Barangay officials will do that. Comelec will just ratify the results.''

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