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Commission says unfair Philippine elections likely

An independent commission of election specialists warned yesterday that without significant reforms, it may be impossible to hold fair elections in the Philippines. The group, members of the Washington-based Center for Democracy, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that it had ``grave concern'' that parties opposed to the government of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos would not be allowed to participate freely in national elections scheduled for Feb. 7. The commission warned that unless major reforms are instituted soon, the legacy of any Philippine election would be ``an uncertain future without . . . electoral legitimacy.''

The commission's findings come amid reports that the elections could be canceled altogether by the Marcos-controlled Supreme Court, if Marcos concludes that he cannot win against the opposition led by Mrs. Corazon Aquino. The court is expected to rule this week on whether the Philippine Constitution requires Marcos's resignation as a condition to a special election.

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The findings of the bipartisan study group, which includes the legal councils of both the Republican and Democratic National Committees, will be used by the Foreign Relations Committee in deciding whether -- if invited -- to join other international parliamentary bodies in sending observers to the February elections.

According to Boston University Prof. Allan Weinstein, who headed the delegation which returned from the Philippines five days ago, major reforms by Marcos will be ``critical'' to fair elections. They include:

The appointment of politically independent commissioners to ``Comelec,'' the agency which administers and enforces Philippine election laws.

Reaccreditation of an independent citizen monitoring group widely credited with making 1984 legislative elections among the fairest in recent Philippine history.

Guarantees of complete access by members of the democratic opposition to Philippine radio, television, and print media. The report says current government restrictions sometimes force opposition leaders to travel to Hong Kong to gain access to media channels to the Philippines.

Guarantees of neutral conduct by the Philippine military. The report cites concerns by opposition leaders of intimidation of poll workers and theft of unfavorable election returns by Philippine soldiers.

The delegation's report comes following weeks of warnings by Congress and the administration that unless elections are held in the Phillipines, and unless they are fair, Marcos risks losing all US support. Marcos has been on an increasingly short string with Washington since the October 1983 assassination of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino.

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Much of Marcos's remaining credibility was destroyed when the Philippine President, ignoring the wishes of the Reagan administration, this month reinstated Gen. Fabian Ver as chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces. General Ver was acquitted of charges of complicity in the Aquino assassination after the Marcos-controlled Supreme Court threw out damaging evidence collected by an independent investigatory unit.

Cancellation of the elections or proof of electoral fraud next February would almost certainly be taken here as final indication that reforms needed to stave off growing political radicalism in the Philippines would be impossible under Marcos. At stake is the level of US foreign aid to the Philippines, which this year totals over $150 million.

Both the Philippine government and spokesmen for Marcos's opposition have publicly endorsed the idea of having foreign observers monitor the elections.

But some in Congress warn that the potential for undetectable election fraud poses major risks. They say no matter how many observers are sent to monitor the elections, it would be impossible to oversee the distribution and counting of ballots at the more than 90,000 polling places where Filipinos will vote. Under the circumstances, the US could run the risk of legitimizing unfair elections by having observers on hand.

``It's one thing to sanction the idea of elections. But why sanction the results since it's so easy to cheat?'' asks one congressional source.

``It's a brilliant strategy,'' says another source, speaking of Marcos's plans to hold elections. ``He's frozen the debate in the US; he's forced a postponement of all decisions relating to US-Philippine relations. He's set up a situation where, if there's clearly provable fraud, he could undercut the position of his opponents in Congress.''

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