When voters in the Philippines go to the polls on Monday, it will be the third of four steps in the restoration of democracy under President Corazon Aquino. Each step helps stabilize Mrs. Aquino's rule, especially when she comes out a winner, as she did last February with the approval of a new Constitution and again in May, when most of her candidates won in elections for Congress.
This latest step, in which voters will elect 75 governors, 1,607 mayors, and thousands of other local officials, ends nearly two years in which these posts were filled with caretaker Aquino appointees. She had turned out the incumbents soon after the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos.
The fourth and last step comes in May, when over 40,000 village and neighborhood leaders will be chosen. This will return Filipino politics, at least in form, to the days before 1972, when martial law was declared by Mr. Marcos.
Aquino hopes locally elected officials will better implement rural development projects to roll back communist influence.
The Jan. 18 polling also helps realign the nation's political landscape. Locally powerful political families have re-asserted themselves in the freer atmosphere of the post-Marcos era, hoping to re-create centuries-old clan dynasties. These regional power-bases have helped split the original ``rainbow'' coalition that brought Aquino to power.
That coalition has been further divided as various national leaders use the elections to put pawns in place for their own quest for the presidency in 1992.
These unsettled political dynamics help account for a bloody campaign. But political violence is not unusual in this country. What is unusual is the high number of candidates themselves being killed - at least 30 - making this election a survival as well as a political contest. At many rallies, candidates' bodyguards now outnumber supporters.
These killings violate an unspoken rule in Filipino politics: that only lieutenants, not principal antagonists, are allowed to be killed in political battles. The 1983 assassination of Aquino's husband was considered the first major violation of that tradition.
About 15 percent of the nation's provinces are rated ``critical'' by the Commission on Elections and may have their voting delayed until after Jan. 18.
Aquino herself remains popular enough that most candidates have pledged support for her. Their vows also arise from the need for aid from Manila, no matter who's on top.
And likewise, Aquino has been eager to keep a hook on local leaders, aligning herself with a few former and present Marcos-supported candidates who are expected to win Monday.
In Marcos's home province of Ilocos Norte, for instance, the former president's party has put up a candidate for governor who is the 80-year-old mother of a still-active Marcos henchman, Roque Ablan. Aquino officials justify a tactical alliance with the Ablan clan as necessary to run the country.
But the tactic has upset Aquino's more idealistic supporters, compelling many of them to join up with the newly reformed Liberal Party under Senate President Jovito Salonga.
The Liberal Party is considered the most organized one nationally. Second to it is the PDP-Laban Party, a leftist group included in Aquino's loose coalition.
The party run by Vice-President Salvador Laurel, the United Nationalist Democratic Organization, has lost members and is being reduced to a regional party in Batangas province, where the Laurel family dominates politics.
The extreme left, represented by the People's Party, has endorsed few candidates openly. This both prevents acts of violence against party members and helps avoid a repeat of their poor showing in last May's elections.