IN calling for a snap presidential election early next year -- possibly in mid-January -- President Ferdinand Marcos is once again showing the shrewdness that has kept him atop the Philippine political situation for two decades. Because of his announcement, the democratic opposition, which had been planning for a president election in 1987, is momentarily confused. Marcos has focused the national spotlight on himself -- rather than on the growing communist insurgency, which is threatening not only his regime but Philippine society itself. And most important, the announcement diverts attention from the most urgent need in the island nation -- fundamental reform of the Philippine governmental and economic system, which continues to be characterized by corruption, nepotism, and inept planning.
The Reagan administration should view the snap-election announcement with reserve and skepticism.
The decision still faces hurdles. The Philippine President's own party will have to approve the decision: A similar attempt by Marcos to hold early elections this year was rejected by his party's leaders in caucuses. And even if his own ruling party, which Mr. Marcos controls, approves the decision, the National Assembly will presumably have to change the current constitutional requirement on elections, which provides that a snap election can only be held if an incumbent president passes on, is disable d, removed from office, or resigns. Mr. Marcos is unwilling to resign. Thus, he will reportedly ask the assembly to change the law to allow him to run while staying in office -- a move that is sure to trigger indignation from the opposition and, in the event of a subsequent Marcos victory, raise questions about the legitimacy of his new mandate.
There is another matter of pressing concern: In his current discussions about the election, Mr. Marcos is said to be leaning against running with a vice-presidential candidate. But a one-on-one election -- Marcos and his democratic opponent -- would not resolve the crucial succession issue.
An early election does have an appealing element -- at least insofar as the Reagan administration is concerned. That is, assuming Mr. Marcos is returned, the election would provide a renewed mandate for the Philippine President. It would provide added justification for Congress to continue its lucrative foreign-aid programs, pegged at some $180 million for fiscal year 1986. The downside is that merely dressing up Mr. Marcos in the attire of a ``renewed mandate'' does not by itself deal with the fundamen tal issue of governmental reform.
There has been support within Washington for an early election -- in part reportedly coming from CIA director William Casey.
If an election does go ahead, the United States should be adamant in holding Mr. Marcos to his promise to allow American observers to be placed throughout the nation. More than that, Manila should be required to allow citizen poll-watchers to once again monitor polling booths, as they did with considerable success in the May 1984 legislative elections. All that said, can there in fact be a truly fair and free election, what with Mr. Marcos controlling the composition of the official national Commission on Elections, the government agency tasked with resolving voting discrepancies?
Thus, many questions remain as the Philippines contemplates a possible presidential election, not the least of which is selection of the opposition candidate. Several persons are possible candidates, including Corazon Aquino, widow of slain opposition leader Benigno Aquino, and former Sen. Salvador Laurel.
But Jan. 17, the date now being broached for the election, is less than three months away.
As Mr. Marcos surely realizes, that is hardly time for a successful opposition effort to be mounted. A free and fair Philippine presidential election is important. So too is resolution of the succession factor -- as well as the deeper issue of reform of the Philippine government and economy.