NO matter how the Philippine presidential election turns out this weekend, the Philippines -- and the United States-Philippine relationship -- will never again be quite the same. Some Philippine analysts are already referring to the current emergence of a ``post-Marcos era,'' in which the day-to-day grip of the Marcos family on Philippine affairs has been badly tarnished. That diminished standing surely was underscored by the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino. It has continued to the present, most recently with allegations of extensive Marcos real estate holdings abroad, as well as evidence that the Marcos war record is based more on puffery and fraud than fact.
And there is another equally important reason for the changed public perception about President Marcos: the spirited and feisty campaign waged by opposition candidate Corazon Aquino.
The political transformation of Mrs. Aquino has been nothing short of remarkable in an election setting dominated in recent decades by candidates who have tended to come from the same ruling political elite -- and whose leadership structure has been overwhelmingly male.
Aquino's roots, of course, are not ``populist.'' Her family had extensive landholdings. She was well educated, mostly at schools in the United States. And her husband was increasingly the voice of many members of the Philippine middle class.
Still, it was the assassination of her husband that galvanized the quiet Mrs. Aquino into reluctantly -- but then vigorously -- challenging President Marcos. Win or lose, Mrs. Aquino has established a singular standard for public service by her tenacity, intelligence, and, most of all, her courage.
The 20-member US election monitoring panel headed up by Sen. Richard Lugar that left for Manila earlier this week has its work cut out. Mrs. Aquino continues to draw massive crowds in the cities. But that's not where the election will be decided. The contest will be won or lost in the countryside -- where local and tribal allegiances predominate, and where bribery, intimidation, and voter fraud are hardly strangers. The US delegation, weighted toward political conservatives, must let it be known in the presidential Malacanang Palace that fraud and postelection reprisals will not be tolerated by the US Congress or the American people, who have a special economic, strategic, and political relationship with the Philippine people.
The period immediately following Friday's election will be crucial for long-range Philippine stability. Massive voter fraud could trigger bitter street protests and rallies -- or even worse. A Marcos victory based on clear evidence of fraud would, at the least, be expected to cause the Philippine business community to put expansion plans on hold until it was clear that the President was going to hang on in office for several more years. Younger officers in the military, facing growing communist insurgency, would be expected to be equally cautious. Indeed, many analysts believe that only the Philippine Roman Catholic Church would have enough independence, for the moment, to offer an effective force for outspoken political opposition as the nation faces important municipal elections later this spring.
For just such reasons, Friday's elections -- and the days immediately following -- will be crucial for the Philippine people, and US-Philippine relations.