Mr. Marcos and the Philippine election process

IN Manila, President Ferdinand Marcos has successfully staged another political minuet. In July, he announced that the presidential election would be held in 1987. On Aug. 1, Mr. Marcos reversed himself. He threatened to dissolve the National Assembly and hold an early election, possibly in 1985. Apparently, Mr. Marcos had been angered by United States press reports that he and Imelda, his politically ambitious wife, had huge and illegal holdings in America. This revelation led to an announced opposition plan -- since failed -- to introduce an impeachment resolution in the Assembly. On Aug. 25, a governmental press referred to ``overwhelming'' public sentiment against ``snap elections.'' Although the statement does not rule out 1985, most observers now believe that an early election, at le ast this year, is unlikely.

These recent events have demonstrated Mr. Marcos's continued mastery of Philippine politics; the weaknesses of the opposition; and the curious direction of US policy. The threat to dissolve the Assembly and call an early election clearly unbalanced the opposition and placed it on the defensive.

If an election is held this year, the various groups that make up the opposition must choose and support a presidential candidate. Unfortunately, since the 1983 murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, the opposition's cohesion -- a vital element in any challenge to Mr. Marcos -- has been unimpressive. At present, the favorite is probably Salvador Laurel.

Mr. Laurel is a former senator and a member of a prominent political family. Reportedly he has both the finances and the political machinery necessary to mount a serious campaign. A Laurel candidacy, however, is hardly inspirational. Just three years ago, Mr. Laurel was a member of Mr. Marcos's party, the New Society Movement. For some, his long association with the regime leaves an indelible opportunistic taint.

Other candidates, however, are also flawed, and reasons range from insufficient financial support to a lack of general appeal. In a nation with the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Philippines, the latter is a particularly important trait. It was a mantle last worn by Benigno Aquino.

In the opposition camp, the situation is so bad that Corazon Aquino, the widow of the slain opposition leader, is often mentioned as a compromise candidate. To be sure, Mrs. Aquino's calm dignity in the aftermath of her husband's murder impressed millions of Filipinos. In any campaign, the Aquino name, plus the financial resources of the family and its backers, would make her support invaluable. Corazon Aquino is not a politician, however, and she has expressed a genuine reluctance to run.

In sharp contrast to her hesitancy is the possibility that only she could defeat Mr. Marcos. The heritage of Benigno Aquino is one of the few unifying themes among disparate opposition factions. The possibility of her candidacy speaks well of her strengths and poorly of those of other opposition contenders.

Part of the opposition's malaise is a natural result of the years of authoritarian rule. Mr. Marcos declared martial law in 1972, and it has only been since 1983, the year of Aquino's murder, that there has been sufficient pressure to move the regime even slightly toward reform. Until 1983, effective political organization was an unwise pursuit in Mr. Marcos's Philippines, and after 11 years of political obsolescence, the creation of an effective, cohesive national opposition will take time. It is an a lly the opposition will lose, should a snap election be called.

At some point, a presidential election will be held, and for the opposition the original date would be better. An important step toward building greater opposition strength could be the local elections (mayors and governors) currently scheduled for next May 3. As originally planned, the local contests were to precede the presidential election by one year. Many believe that opposition candidates will gain ground locally, and that these gains will provide a stronger base for a challenge to the presidency . Should a presidential election be held first, however, that advantage would be lost.

All of these elements should be understood in Washington, but if they are, evidence of comprehension has yet to be seen. It is no secret that the United States favors an early presidential election. In May, Newsweek reported that CIA head William Casey urged Mr. Marcos to do just that. The US, with strategically important military bases in the Philippines, hopes that a ``snap'' election will reaffirm Mr. Marcos's political mandate, or provide a mechanism for transition to a successor.

An early election will do neither; it will, however, guarantee a Marcos victory, largely because of the present disarray in opposition ranks and the power of the Marcos political machine.

On this important point, the US, a leading advocate of electoral fairness, has assumed an equivocal stance. On one hand, the American position strongly supports clean elections, while on the other it is not clear what sanctions, if any, America will impose in the likely event of election fraud. Further doubt about the US resolve on sanctions was added recently: The Reagan administration asked Congress for $100 million in military aid to the Marcos government, $15 million more than the $85 million agreed

to under the 1983 US-Philippine bases pact.

One consequence of Mr. Marcos's reelection would be to make the administration's task of protecting him from congressional critics a bit easier, and cynicism suggests it is the real reason for the US insistence on an early election. If, however, continued and increased support of Mr. Marcos is an American policy goal, certain points must be understood. A Marcos victory, while it may ensure continued US assistance to the regime, should not be confused with a reaffirmed political mandate.

The problems that have destabilized this former US colony -- immense governmental corruption, a disastrous economy, an undisciplined and ineffective military, and a growing armed insurrection -- can only be blamed on the regime. There will likely not be substantial progress on needed reform until Mr. Marcos is out of office, a reaffirmed mandate notwithstanding.

Peter Bacho, a lawyer, teaches at the University of Washington.

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