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Throwing his opponents off balance is typical for Marcos, who, as former Philippines Foreign Minister Arturo Tolentino, a dissident member of the K.B.L., puts it, "has always looked at political contests in a military way." Only three weeks ago, Marcos denied firmly that he was contemplating any sudden election move. Many observers attribute his change of heart to pressure from the U.S. Said Marcos' wife Imelda on the eve of her return to Manila from a three-week trip to New York, Rome, Moscow and Tokyo: "I cannot understand why the U.S. is bullying and trying to isolate the President."
The Reagan Administration reacted cautiously to Marcos' election announcement. Said a U.S. Government analyst: "We are under no illusions about President Marcos and his intention to stay in power, about his resources and his tactical brilliance in Philippine politics." Rather than applaud Marcos' decision, the U.S. outlined the conditions necessary for the elections to be considered free and fair. Among them were 1) "professional" behavior by the Philippine military, meaning political neutrality; 2) an impartial supervising election commission; and 3) independent civilian observers. Said State Department Spokesman Charles Redman: "If elections are to re-establish confidence, then it is essential that they be credible to the Philippine people."
The warning was yet another sign of Washington's deep concern about the political health of the Philippines. Much of the concern is focused on the growing success of an estimated 16,500 Filipino fighters who make up the Communist New People's Army. Two weeks ago, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage predicted that the battle between the N.P.A. and President Marcos' 300,000-member armed forces could reach a "strategic stalemate"--a stand-off--within three years. Washington's greatest concern is of a Communist takeover that would cost the U.S. both a longtime ally and access to two of the most important military installations in the Far East, Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station. The lease agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines covering those installations extends until 1991.
If any U.S. signal may have helped catalyze Marcos' latest surprise venture, it was a four-day visit to Manila last month by Republican Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada. Laxalt held two meetings with the Philippine leader. At one of them, the U.S. legislator passed along a three-page letter from President Reagan outlining his personal worries about the local situation. As a Laxalt aide recalled last week, Marcos was the first to mention presidential elections, only to reject the idea. By the second meeting, according to the aide, Marcos had changed his mind, at least in principle, and had become "enthusiastic" about elections.