Democratic message to Marcos

NO matter how the final vote in this week's legislative elections in the Philippines turns out, there can no longer be any doubt: Given a choice, millions of Filipinos eagerly want a speedy return to a more democratic society.

The election results - in which opposition candidates scored significant gains - should impel the United States to do everything it can to encourage the ruling government of President Ferdinand Marcos to loosen the grip his regime has imposed on the Philippine people.

Final election results, as of this writing, are still incomplete. The government party is still expected to control the National Assembly - in large part because it did particularly well throughout the Philippine countryside, away from the TV cameras and the presence of foreign observers. A pro-Marcos countryside vote was not unexpected. Neither was the prospect of ballot tampering and other acts of election fraud reported from many polling places, since the the government's ruling New Society Movement obviously had much at stake in retaining control of the National Assembly.

What is far more significant, however, is the extent of the opposition vote recorded in the urban centers. There will now be a sizable opposition element right within the Assembly itself - far larger than the 13 or so seats held by the opposition in the previous Assembly. And there can be little doubt but that the opposition means to be heard, and to play an increasingly direct role in governmental affairs.

Even President Marcos was forced to acknowledge the depth of the urban opposition, although he sought to minimize its impact by referring to ''an undercurrent of dissent,'' based on economic concerns, as well as public unease over the killing of former opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. Certainly, the economy is in trouble. There is a prospect of bankruptcy. Foreign debt is high. Capital flight continues.

The extent of the opposition vote indicates that many people are increasingly willing to register a protest against the Marcos regime, whatever the threat to their own personal safety that such a protest vote may entail. That alone should trouble Mr. Marcos. Indeed, opposition leaders say that one of their first legislative objectives will be to restrict the decree-making powers of President Marcos.

The United States obviously has much at stake in how successfully the Philippines can be nudged back toward a more democratic basis.

The US has had a long interest in the nation - going back before the mid-1940 s, when America stood aside and watched that nation gain independence. The US also has important military and commercial links with the Philippines: It encouraged the successful military campaigns against communist insurgents in the 1950s.

Yet, insurgency is once again on the rise in the Philippines, in part in reaction to the tightfisted Marcos regime. Last year President Marcos basically accepted a new procedural process that could help permit a natural succession, if he were to leave the scene. It is now time to go even further, and move away from authoritarian rule.

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