Strength of Democratic Process Tested in Filipino Election

AS Filipinos from all walks of life waited in line to cast their votes in yesterday's general elections, many had yet to decide who they would choose as the country's next president.

"I still don't know," said Cely Benito, as she signed her name to a register, dipped her finger in indelible ink to prevent double-voting, and took her ballot to a cardboard voting booth.

The national state of indecision, which makes the race too close to call, reflects voters' disenchantment with all seven candidates, many analysts say.

Yet the lack of a front runner also marks a watershed for this country, which is still struggling to shake off the effects of 20 years of dictatorship. No individual appears to have dominated the process.

"It's sad that Marcos's wife and best friend have been able to come back and divide the various camps," said Nelson Navarro, a political analyst. "But if the system can accommodate them, it means the system is strong and sound - and we no longer have to be afraid of them." The candidates

Former first lady Imelda Marcos and Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, a former business associate of late President Ferdinand Marcos, both returned from exile in the United States to run for the presidency.

Other candidates include House Speaker Ramon Mitra, former Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos, Vice President Salvador Laurel, former Senate President Jovito Salonga, and ex-judge Miriam Defensor Santiago.

While Mr. Cojuangco is a front runner - along with Mr. Mitra, Mr. Ramos, and Ms. Santiago - Ms. Marcos is expected to do poorly.

[At press time a Reuters exit poll showed Ramos and Santiago locked in a close battle for the presidency, getting 23.5 percent and 21.7 percent respectively. Election analysts have refused to indicate a winner, pointing to the close vote and saying that most early returns have come largely from urban areas.] Cleanest elections

The independent Commission on Elections (COMELEC), headed by Christian Monsod, has been credited by all sectors with laying a framework for what could turn out to be the Philippines' cleanest elections.

Since the commissioners were busy at the polls and could not go to the television stations, the television stations came to them. Five local network backdrops have been squeezed into a room adjoining the voting precinct. The room is crowded with cameramen and crews.

Mr. Monsod shuffles from backdrop to backdrop, patiently answering questions about the voting process and reciting telephone numbers for the COMELEC Public Assistance Hotline.

"We want to be visible," Monsod says, stepping over TV cables at the voting precinct where Ms. Marcos has just cast her vote. "All the commissioners will take turns discussing the progress of the elections on national television."

"COMELEC has proved that they cannot be bought," says Angelita David, an advertising expert, "and they have really used the media to great advantage." On the other side of the makeshift studio, 16 operators answer hotline telephones for COMELEC.

"Most callers are asking logistical questions, like 'Why isn't my name on the voter list?' " says Cecilia Doromal, the COMELEC hotline supervisor. "We've been able to solve most problems."

Operators include volunteers trained to answer simple questions and to refer complex complaints to an action team which includes an attorney.

Across Manila, last-minute campaign flyers, stirred up into paper blizzards by passing traffic, marked the roads leading to polling places.

Voters patiently searched for their names on typed or handwritten lists in the school rooms which served as voting precincts.

"For so long we haven't had a real election," says an older man waiting to affix his thumbprint to his completed ballot before dropping it in a padlocked ballot box. Voter turnout appears to be high.

Election violence escalated slightly before yesterday but incidents of violence throughout the campaign period were scattered and isolated.

Most violence seemed to be related to local contests.

"This level of violence is regrettable, but it is to be expected," says Monsod. "We are just hoping to keep it down."

[Reuters reports that 11 people died on polling day throughout the Philippine islands, bringing the overall death toll to 71 since campaigning opened three months ago. Another 125 people have been wounded. During the 1988 local elections the death toll reached 149.]

Presidential election results will not be announced immediately. School teachers, who head up each voting precinct, must read aloud from each handwritten ballot and the results must be collated and certified before an official proclamation is made by the new Congress on May 25. The chance to vote

For many Filipinos, the chance to vote in a reasonably peaceful and free election is as important as the outcome. Nearly everyone acknowledges that the new president must rebuild the economy and society, badly damaged by 20 years of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos and six years of coup attempts, natural disasters, and disappointing leadership under Corazon Aquino.

Esperanza Cuento rested in the shade of a tree in a dusty schoolyard after casting her vote in a town 40 miles south of Manila.

"I'm hoping for a miracle," said the unemployed economist. "Because this has to change. This has to change."

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