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Philippines Vote Helps Boost Ramos's Reforms

DESPITE being one of the most active democracies in Asia, the Philippines' election last Sunday was nearly devoid of issues and riddled with violence. Official results won't be known for at least two weeks.

But unofficial vote tallies by a watchdog group are already coming in. And they show that President Fidel Ramos may end up with strong allies in Congress, bolstering his drive to further rebuild this Southeast Asian nation from its lost years under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

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Early unofficial results show Mr. Ramos's ruling coalition, Lakas-Laban, being in the lead for 10 of the 12 Senate seats in the May 8 midterm elections. The early leads reflect prepoll surveys that said the administration would win comfortably.

''This shows new faith.... This is a fresh mandate,'' Ramos said when less than 20 percent of the votes cast nationwide had been counted. Over 17,000 seats were at stake in races for Congress, governors, mayors, and councillors.

The mandate shows that Ramos now has a stronger hand to push through needed social and economic reforms through the policymaking Senate in his remaining three years as president.

The reforms are needed to strengthen democracy here and bring the country to join the boom economies of the Asia-Pacific region.

Analysts say the election mandate will renew foreign investors' confidence in the country. Reforms especially toward liberalizing the economy, pushed through by Ramos since his election in 1992, have been rewarded with a surge in foreign investment and strong economic growth last year.

One opposition thorn in Ramos's side will be the feisty Miriam Defensor Santiago, who currently is showing a strong lead. Ms. Santiago narrowly lost the presidential race to Ramos in 1992.

Two symbols of previous antidemocratic actions are trailing. Ferdinand ''Bongbong'' Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the late dictator, ran a well-oiled Senate campaign. He is facing countless corruption charges.

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Army Col. Gregorio Honasan, who launched two unsuccessful coups against then-President Corazon Aquino, has gathered substantial votes, but seems to be short of victory for a Senate seat.

Marcos's mother, Imelda Marcos, who is out on bail after a court sentenced her to life imprisonment for graft, has claimed victory for a congressional seat in her home province of Leyte. ''The people have spoken,'' she said after unofficial results showed she was winning by a landslide. Mrs. Marcos ran in spite of her initial disqualification by the election commission on grounds that she didn't fulfill one-year residency requirements. The Supreme Court will decide if she can take her seat, but that process may take months, if not years.

The candidates that Filipino voters were confronted with are a reflection of the turbulent nature of Philippine democracy. Analysts were surprised that not even the powerful public backlash over the Singapore hanging of a Filipina maid had in the final analysis affected the administration slate.

Poll violence and killings, a standard feature of Philippine elections, have so far left 59 dead since the start of the campaign. Rival candidates staged ambushes, grenade blasts, ballot snatching, and plain warfare, mostly in southern Philippines.

The worst single act of violence, which killed 11, took place in Jolo when Air Force helicopters fired on supporters of a mayoral candidate on election day, who refused to let soldiers take the ballot boxes.

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