CREDIT for the quick and peaceful transfer of power in Manila from Ferdinand Marcos to Corazon Aquino is widely shared: First, the Philippine people showed remarkable courage and self-control during the inevitable showdown that followed the Feb. 7 election. The masses mingled among government tanks. They were inspired by a moral protest against the election's theft by the Marcos regime. A conviction of the rightness of their cause under democratic principles seemed to leave them fearless.
Second, the opposition leadership headed by Mrs. Aquino -- with key recruits, notably Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lieut. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, stepping forward in rapid, last-minute crescendo -- set a tone of protest of the election's theft that was at once insistent and self-possessed. They appeared clearly motivated by justice, not personal ambition. This motivation should help the new leadership through the difficult issues of transition that lie ahead.
Third, Washington has commendably facilitated the transition with a series of steps that should enhance the prospects of Philippine democratic independence. There have been some bobbles on Washington's part. Washington had long seemed too quick to embrace Mr. Marcos and gloss over his regime's imperfections, which eventually became too glaring to be ignored. The Reagan administration, however, began its preparations early. When opposition leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated, the State Department's Michael H. Armacost quickly visited Aquino's mother, attended the funeral, and otherwise indicated that Washington was not about to ignore the potential of a moderate, post-Marcos direction. The mission of Sen. Paul Laxalt to Marcos on behalf of President Reagan further affirmed serious White House interest in reform within the Philippines, as well as ensuring an eventual orderly succession. Congress supported the administration's thrust, with insistence on a presidential election, monitoring the outcome's fairness, and backing up of the President's offer of safe exile for Marcos if bloodshed were avoided.
Finally, a word for Mr. Marcos. His faults have been justly pilloried at each step of the final challenge to his rule and his ouster. He was, however, also acknowledged as wily, with a grasp of the opportunities and instruments of power. Acquiescing to ouster was the better judgment.
The murder of Benigno Aquino in August 1983, assumedly by Marcos loyalists to quash an opposition, has instead been followed by the accession of the slain leader's widow. She has earned her own success, with hard campaigning and a persuasive evocation of political purpose, pledging dedication to ``morality and decency in government, freedom, and democracy.''
Because of the relative smoothness of the transition, Washington can better work with the cohesive moderate, middle-class, and reform-minded military elements in Philippine society that successfully asserted themselves.
The Manila succession showed the limitations of rule by military power, which inevitably turns oppressive. It demonstrated the superiority of democratic will.