PRINCETON, N.J. — The elections in the Philippines have turned out in the worst possible way. There was massive fraud, coercion and ma nipulation of registration lists and returns, according to a group of international observers that included representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties. All the evidence points to President Ferdinand E. Marcos and his supporters as the perpetrators, rather than to his rival, Corazon Aquino.
The conclusions of the international group, far freer to speak out and much longer on the scene than the official U.S. group headed by Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), will almost certainly be buttressed by the findings of the National Movement for Free Elections--Namfrel--the extraordinary and courageous Filipino civilian watchdog organization that deployed hundreds of thousands of volunteers on election day Feb. 7.
Last week President Reagan twice waffled on the question of the scale of fraud and its source, apparently on the advice of the official observer group that to speak out frankly on the subject could somehow cause more trouble.
No such inhibitions need apply to the American people or Congress. For purposes of judging the situation and the Administration's response in terms of action, massive fraud is the starting point--as indeed I devoutly hope it is in the private Administration deliberations.
Meanwhile, Marcos' strategy is clear. A master of timing, he has had the assembly dominated by his adherents tally the vote, making a show of careful deliberation. Then probably today or Monday--after a massive opposition rally scheduled for today--the assembly will proclaim Marcos the winner. Marcos will have won another hand of poker in his long series of brushes with opponents at home and with American Presidents.
This time, however, the results could be calamitous. Even if civil conflict can be contained in these coming weeks--a big "if" in itself--the kind of debilitated and discredited but still dug-in Marcos regime now in prospect can only mean increased repression, settling of scores in the nastiest of ways, inept crony government and business and a still-personalized military. It adds up to a worse and worse economic crisis and a marked step-up in the communist insurgency threat.
These results and how the Reagan Administration handles the situation could also have drastic effects, in both the short and the long term, on Philippine-U.S. relations and on the position of the United States in the islands where it is inescapably linked by history and shared sacrifice and now by pervasive cultural influences and strong economic ties.
There is little chance, at least in the short run, that any Philippine government would evict the United States from the important naval and air bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field. But there is a very substantial chance, over the longer term, that developments growing from this election will make the bases increasingly untenable.
So the stakes are high and the possibilities dark. Thus it was especially disheartening to see and hear Reagan's first reactions. His saying that the election at least showed the emergence of two political parties and that these should now work together to form an effective reformist government was a civics homily that for sheer unreality--not to mention the old American habit of imputing American beliefs and practices to others--would be hard to beat for anyone who has ever dealt with the Philippines, lived there or studied the country in recent years.
Above all, dropping any reference to the need for a "credible" election--the cornerstone of all that Reagan and his officials have been saying for months--amounted to a signal to Marcos that this Administration would roll over and play dead whatever he did.
Perhaps, however, these were only the fumbling first moves in what must be a total U.S. reconsideration of policy toward the Philippines. The mission of the able and objective trouble-shooter Philip C. Habib must be the start of that process.
For the raw fact is that we as a nation confront the toughest policy choices since the Lebanon crisis of 1982, and in a country where a U.S. failure would loom even greater.
Marcos called this election because he saw a small window of opportunity and jumped to get through it, not at all for love of democracy but because it was the best road to solidify and consolidate his personal power. He could claim a real victory over inflation (thanks wholly to a tough-minded and independent Central Bank governor). The economy looked a shade less bad than the negative growth rates of 1984 and 1985. The insurgency was not visibly rampant, at least in Luzon, so that he could still pretend it was under control. The opposition was divided and disorganized. His political machine, the New Society Movement (Kilusan Bagong Lipunan or KBL), was still intact.