NOT SINCE Mohammed Ali took on Joe Fraser has there been a "thrillah in Manila" to match the elections that the Philippines' strongman president Ferdinand Marcos, ran the other day. The very last thing Mr. Marcos had in mind was to give his opposition a fair crack at power. But he did wish to sweeten up the Carter administration and, specifically, to put Congress in the mood to pay the Philippines heavy compensation for the military bases whose continued use the State Department is currently negotiating. His purpose was, in brief to run a phony election that looked good. So he allowed competition for seats to a legislature - that he can overrule. He let his chief rival, Benigno Aquino, whom he jailed in 1972, on television - once, The opposition did campaign strenuously in Manila - but the president's chief political aide, his wife, Imelda, unleashed extra dollops of her formidable patronage and charm.
Mr. Marcos won, big, but the evidence is, nonetheless, that he badly miscalculated. The opposition, though restricted, drew more support than he had bargained for. The foreign press, which he had invited in to validate his good faith, instead became witness first to his political embarrassment and then - when he cracked down hard on the opposition as soon as the votes had been counted (or miscounted) - to his revenge. It is fair question whether, in terms of his own purposes of influencing Americans, President Marcos came out ahead or behind. Some people will give him credit for permitting the opposition more of a run than you expect from a strongman operating under martial law. Others will single out his insurance policy - the fraud and the force. We suspect he could not have won this particular game either way: Any election that would have won American approval would have threatened his power.
Where does that leave the United States? The strategic value of the American bases is unaffected by the Philippines' latest turn, though their monetary value, to the Philippines, may have been some what reduced. Almost everybody, including Peking and Taipei and excluding only the Russians and Vietnamese, wants the United States to hang on. The base negotiations should resume.
But the election itself has got to induce some humility among Americans. Any favor the United States may have won in democratic circles must be measured against the resentment stirred in nationalistic circles by what many Filipinos evidently took as a hectoring moralistic approach. It is hard to think that Mr. Marcos will soon be tempted to offer his people another taste, even a little taste, of political freedom. And that was supposedly, in American eyes, the whole point of the exercise.