WASHINGTON — President Reagan, presented with evidence of widespread ballot fraud in the Philippines, announced Tuesday that he will send his former Middle East envoy, Philip C. Habib, to Manila to help determine how the United States should respond to what he described as a "flawed" election.
The President also appeared to back away from previous statements that presumed a reelection victory by President Ferdinand E. Marcos. Noting that the vote count has not yet been completed, he said that "it is not appropriate for the United States to make such a judgment at this time."
At the same time, Reagan indicated in a statement issued by the White House that he is concerned about reports of fraud. "It is a disturbing fact that the election has been flawed by reports of fraud, which we take seriously, and by violence," he said.
No 'Hard Evidence'
While there has been no evidence of fraudulent acts by Marcos' opponents, the President later ad-libbed during a televised news conference that "it could have been that all of that was occurring on both sides."
His news conference remarks were less critical of the election process than was his official statement. He told reporters that while there was the "appearance of fraud" in the election, the Administration has no "hard evidence" and will remain neutral until all the votes are counted.
Habib's scheduled trip--the third such presidential mission to Manila in four months--underscores the difficulty that the United States would face in the Philippines should Marcos retain power despite evidence that his supporters had deprived opposition leader Corazon Aquino of a fair election.
Faced with what would be an impossible choice between propping up an unpopular leader or withdrawing aid from a country where the United States has two strategically important military bases, Administration officials are looking to Habib to help create another alternative--a negotiated settlement between the Marcos and Aquino camps.
To make matters worse for the Administration, pressure appears to be building in Congress to cut off aid to the Marcos government as a result of the election fraud. Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) predicted Tuesday that there will be "a strong move in Congress to react in terms of funds we provide."
The President acknowledged that "our interests are deeply affected by these elections--by the results, by the deficiencies of the process and by what all this means for the future." Despite the problems, he said, the balloting shows "the profound yearning of the Filipino people for democracy."
Keep the Relationship
"We hope to have the same relationship with the people of the Philippines that we've had all these historic years," he added. " . . . We are going to try and continue the relationship regardless of what government is instituted there by the choice of the people."
Reagan said that "one cannot minimize the importance" of U.S. bases in the Philippines, but he assumed that the Pentagon has contingency plans for moving the bases elsewhere, if necessary.
His statement said that he expects Habib to meet with Marcos and Aquino, as well as church, government and business leaders, and to return to the White House with advice on how the United States should proceed in its relations with the Philippines.
Habib, a tough-talking diplomat who served from 1981 until 1983 as Reagan's emissary to the Middle East, succeeded in July, 1981, in negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in southern Lebanon that lasted 11 months. He previously served as U.S. representative at the Paris peace talks on Southeast Asia in the early 1970s.
Met With Lugar Group
Habib's mission was announced after the President met with Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), leaders of a 20-member presidential delegation that went to the Philippines to observe the election. The two lawmakers described many instances of fraud but declined to make a public judgment about it on grounds that anything they said might be used by Marcos as a reason to annul the election.
"We frankly don't know who won the election," Lugar said. "The election is not over. We aren't going to make any comments that President Marcos or anybody else could use to say that 'we're calling it all off, bad scene, we're sorry it worked out so badly.' "
Privately, however, sources within the Lugar-Murtha delegation told reporters that they informed the President that Marcos had unfairly deprived Aquino of victory.
One delegate, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said he doubts that Marcos can govern the Philippines under current circumstances because he appears to have lost the mandate of the people. "This is a setback for President Marcos," he said. "He has really put himself in a box."