BACK in the 1960s, as a correspondent covering Asia, I called on a young Filipino politician said by the knowledgeable to be a rising star. We talked in his office and then, surrounded by bodyguards, took his car to some Manila restaurant for lunch. As we sat in the back seat during the journey, my feet kept nudging a long burlap bag on the floor. It made an ominous metallic clinking noise. ``No problem,'' my host said with a cheerful grin; ``it's just a machine gun in case we run into trouble.''
My host was Benigno Aquino, a bright, fun-loving man, sharply irreverent even in those days and bursting with eagerness to run against President Marcos.
But Mr. Aquino was imprisoned for some eight years, later allowed to leave the Philippines for the United States, and when, in 1983, he returned to his country, he was murdered as he walked down the steps from the aircraft on which he arrived.
The military men accused of killing him have been exonerated, but many critics charge this is a whitewash to cover up complicity in high places.
Whatever any ugly hidden facts, President Marcos has outlasted Senator Aquino. But now the question is whether the forces of opposition, galvanized by Mr. Aquino's murder, are bringing Mr. Marcos's rule to an end, or whether the old Marcos guile can outmaneuver an opposition beset by traditional disunity.
A presidential election is scheduled for February. Will it be held? Probably, if the challengers look weak, although close observers warn that Marcos could turn it off by a variety of means if he so decided.
If the election goes ahead, there are three scenarios:
In the face of opposition disarray, Mr. Marcos could win fair and square.
Strengthened by an election victory, he could move on the economic and military reforms the US has been pressing for, along with political reform.
Or, fortified by popular support, he could thumb his nose at the US and make no progress. Washington has some leverage, in the form of military and economic aid, but it would be unrealistic to overrate it. The return of a truculent Marcos would make the prospect of an internal explosion more likely.
Marcos could lose the election and throw in the towel.
As it looks at the moment, his successor would be Mrs. Corazon Aquino, Senator Aquino's widow. Mrs. Aquino is politically inexperienced, but she's riding a sentimental tide. As President, she would be a bit of a question mark initially, but some are concerned that she would have to make a gesture to ``closet communists'' in the ranks of her followers. Her vice-presidential running mate is an intensely ambitious former senator, Salvador Laurel, until Wednesday the third presidential candidate.
Either Marcos or Aquino might feel obliged to pluck some American eagle feathers on the issue of American bases in the Philippines.
Marcos could lose, but not give up.
By some legal -- or perhaps illegal -- jiggery-pokery, he could declare the election void.
He could announce that the outcome had been distorted by opposition cheating.
He could, citing national emergency, simply refuse to relinquish power to the election's rightful winner.
This would probably unleash civil war. It would pose immense political, diplomatic, and perhaps military problems for the United States.
The Reagan administration was slow in perceiving the problem caused by Marcos's maladministration. But few could fault the stridency with which the US has latterly demanded a cleanup in the Philippines.
The administration's role now should not be to manipulate the outcome of the contest in February, but to use all its influence on behalf of a fair election.
There is not much more to be done until we see whether Marcos canters victoriously back to Malacaang Palace, or clip-clops off into the sunset.
John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.