TOKYO — Tokyo. -- Returns from the Philippines' first post-Marcos election had scarcely begun to trickle in before American commentators found cause to celebrate.
An editorial in the Washington Post captured the prevailing tone. President Corazon Aquino, the writer enthused, "gave her country the luminous gift of a working democracy."
Mrs. Aquino's courage and grace were indeed luminous throughout the final crisis of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. She led a nation in making flowers and "People Power" triumph over tanks.
But six years later, "a working democracy" is far from a fact in the Philippines. To burden Mrs. Aquino's place in history with responsibility for delivering one would be to ask the superhuman of a reluctant leader whose popular appeal has always begun with her unassuming awareness of her own humanity. The phrase would be chillingly risky even as a forecast.
In 1972, "a working democracy" was precisely the gift many Americans proudly thought they had given to their former colony. Corazon Aquino was the little-noticed wife of Sen. Benigno S. "Ninoy" Aquino, everybody's bet to be the next president. His law office was one of the regular stops for visiting American reporters. A morning or afternoon there revealed a mentality as complex and an ambition as overarching as that of then-President Marcos, whose six-year term was approaching its constitutional end.
But Mr. Marcos called off the election, declared martial law and locked up Mr. Aquino and hosts of other real and imagined political opponents. With astonishingly few objections raised, he dismantled the constitution and patched together a new one that made him, in reality if not in name, dictator for life.
Eleven years after Mr. Marcos stripped his country of democracy, Ninoy Aquino ended years of self-exile in the United States and returned to the Philippines to campaign for an end to dictatorship. Murder at the airport ended Mr. Aquino's life but not his challenge.
The most immense funeral procession in the country's history made it plain that Mr. Aquino's return to Manila was the beginning of the end for Mr. Marcos.
Now, in 1992, Ninoy Aquino's widow approaches the end of a six-year term in the presidency she and the Philippine people wrested from the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. Merely to complete her term, she has had to survive ever-bloodier comic-opera coup attempts by egomaniacal army officers.
In a country with that recent history, a stumbling economy, widespread illiteracy, debilitating poverty, not a single truly national political party, scores butchered every time there's an election and seven serious candidates for president, it takes rosy glasses indeed to see "a working democracy."
At week's end, with ballots from last Monday's election still being counted, there was no visible prospect that any candidate for president would get as much as one-third of the vote. There will be no run-off.
So there is no need to wait for the final tally to know the most important fact about the outcome: The best the Philippines can hope for is six years of a president who will come to office not only without a majority but without even a convincing plurality. Thus hamstrung by an inherently faint mandate from the voters, the new president will face all the same dilemmas that proved too much for Mrs. Aquino:
* An army that is still not fully reconciled to letting the voters name the government, but that is badly needed to contain the continuing pseudo-Maoist and other rebellions.
* A land system that cries out for reform, but that can be reformed only at unacceptable cost to investors and educated people who are desperately needed to help modernize the rest of the economy.
* Corruption that paralyzes the polity and poisons the economy, but that is so deeply rooted that few believe it could soon be controlled by normal democratic processes.
* An oligarchy that oppresses the rural poor and often thwarts modernization, but that holds the key to votes in Congress any president must get if there is to be any program, or even any budget.
* Population growth -- there are some 2 million more Filipinos today than when Mrs. Aquino took office -- that mocks economic progress and overtaxes the environment, but that will not readily be slowed in a devoutly Roman Catholic and poorly educated country.
Do these sobering realities mean it is necessary to choose between demanding that Corazon Aquino deliver "a working democracy" and writing her off as a failure?
Surely failures and missed opportunities have abounded in the past six years. Having declared land reform her top priority upon coming to office, Mrs. Aquino proved scarcely more able than her predecessors to uproot the entrenched rural-based oligarchy.