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.
Negros Occidental Province would be anybody's choice as the top land-reform priority. Mrs. Aquino's land plan of 1988 acknowledged that by targeting 40 percent of the province's privately owned land -- the most anywhere in the country -- to be redistributed over 10 years. Today, four years into the job, it is not quite one-eighteenth done in Negros Occidental.
Only in Mrs. Aquino's final year in office did the Philippines begin to grapple with the suffocating debt created by the Marcos extravagances and looting of the treasury. Education, an obvious priority for any economic program, is at most marginally advanced from the Marcos years.
But there have been achievements. The coups have been put down by armed forces units loyal to the constitution. This week's ballot counting is supervised by the most independent, impartial elections commission the Philippines has ever had. "The Commission on Elections is the only credible institution in the country today," Haydee Yorac, a member, declared just before the polls opened.
It may be chilling to think of a nation of 67 million with only one credible national institution, but that is one more than the country had as the Marcos years ended. Mrs. Aquino deserves much of the credit for keeping the commission as insulated as possible from the bribery, violence and petty partisanship that pervade Philippine elections.
And credit for something more fundamental.
The Philippines' first attempt at democracy was made in America. The attempt Mrs. Aquino has led has been made in Manila, though with considerable cooperation from Washington once it was clear the dictator Marcos had lost his grip. It has coincided with America's own post-Cold War turn inward, which has smoothed some big symbolic changes such as the U.S. withdrawal from Clark air base and the Subic Bay naval facilities.
The net effect has been a spreading realization that Filipinos needn't, and maybe can't, look to Washington much longer to provide them with either political decisions or political dragons to slay.
The legacy of the Corazon Aquino years thus may best be sought somewhere in the political consciousness of the Filipino people. Whatever backsliding and lurches fore and aft may lie ahead, Filipinos will know that the triumph at the Edsa, the facing down of coup plotters and even the credibility of the elections commission are Filipino achievements.
If the achievements of the past six years do eventually lead to a working democracy, that, too, will be a Filipino achievement. But Filipinos can expect a few more lurches between here and there.
As for Americans, we can be forgiven if we long to congratulate ourselves that our former colony is once again a working democracy. But Richard Nixon forfeited his countrymen's right to that satisfaction when he embraced Ferdinand Marcos's turn to dictatorship. His successors -- Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush (while vice-president) -- underscored the forfeiture by clinging to the dictator until the handwriting on the wall had turned to neon.
Philippine events yet unforeseeable may offer American leaders some chances to redeem their predecessors' embrace of the dictator Marcos. They are sure to give American commentators some occasions to recall that "a working democracy" is not acquired in one stroke as a "gift." Not from a former colonial power, and not from any one leader, however luminous.