THE persistent questions about the health of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos obscure a larger issue: There will be a post-Marcos Philippines. The primary concern today should be the substance and quality of that future. It is an issue that demands immediate attention.
The Philippines' problems are serious. Persistent economic woes and widespread dissatisfaction with the authoritarian Marcos regime have accelerated , particularly since the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino. More ominously, the rural Marxist rebellion continues to grow, fueled by growing discontent.
As troubles mount, it is clear the regime has few answers. It is equally clear Marcos will not resign.
Mr. Marcos's weekend public appearance may have countered the rumors that his demise was imminent. But ironically, if he were to pass on in office, the restoration of democracy might be hindered. And democracy is the first step toward stability.
A reason for apprehension in a post-Marcos setting is the uncertainty surrounding presidential succession. Until recently, the question of succession was deferred.
Current law authorizes the speaker of the National Assembly to assume power if a sitting president succumbs, and to call for national elections. Whether this would occur is a topic of conjecture.
Many Filipinos fear direct military intervention. The politicization of the Philippine military is a sad legacy of the Marcos years. Before Mr. Marcos declared martial law in 1972, the armed forces largely avoided politics. As he continued in power, he relied increasingly on his generals to quash dissent, granting them unprecedented influence in domestic affairs.
The result of this exchange was dramatized recently. The majority report of the Agrava Commission accused 25 military men of involvement in the Aquino assassination, including Fabian Ver, chief of staff. Ver is a relative of the President and a close confidant. It is possible the military has developed a desire to rule as well as command.
To avoid that scenario, the United States must move now. It must make it clear that it will terminate both military and economic assistance to the Philippines if the transition mechanism is sabotaged.
The nature of American influence is not only economic leverage but moral as well, a residue of the colonial past. Largely missing from American policy has been the will to exercise that influence effectively.
Unfortunately, the American approach, particularly during the Reagan administration, has been to tolerate Mr. Marcos's ''benign'' authoritarian rule. Yet, it is that rule which has brought this nation to disaster's edge. It is time for the Philippines to move back, and for the US to assist in the process.
Self-interest alone should motivate American policy. There is no doubt of the strategic value of US bases in the Philippines, or the dangers civil war poses to them.
There is, however, another reason, which should be equally compelling. Alone among nations, the Philippines is a uniquely American product. Its institutions were patterned on the American model, and its citizens continue to be deeply influenced by American values.
For most of this century, the Philippines has enjoyed a powerful democratic tradition. Consequently, the exercise of US influence on behalf of this tradition is not a case of exporting American ideals. Democratic values, although present, are muted, and a thoughtful American effort would simply allow them free expression.
Unfortunately, the ingrained nature of Philippine democracy is a point that President Reagan has apparently missed. In the second presidential debate, he claimed that communism was the alternative to the current disastrous state of affairs in the Philippines.
President Reagan is wrong. There are and have always been democratic alternatives to the Marcos regime. What is necessary is for America to realize finally that authoritarianism is an aberration and not the rule; that Mr. Marcos is not the Philippines; and that there will be a post-Marcos era.
In anticipation of that time, the US must be willing to provide a protective buffer - in the form of a clear American endorsement of the transition process - which will allow Filipinos to explore what those democratic alternatives might be.
Peter Bacho, a lawyer, teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.