During the last elections in the Philippines, in May 1984, nine volunteers from a citizens' poll-watching organization were stopped in Danao by men wearing masks and carrying M16 rifles. They were stripped of their clothes and belongings, kicked and struck with rifle butts and eventually made to run for their lives in a hail of bullets. Two were wounded.

Danao, a city in the central Philippines, is controlled by Ramon Durano, a wealthy 80-year-old political warlord who is staunchly loyal to President Ferdinand Marcos and boasts of his ability to bring in the vote for the Marcos electoral machine.

Earlier this month Durano publicly offered to bet 1 million pesos, or about $55,000, that Marcos would win the election Feb. 7.

Today, according to Jose Concepcion Jr., the head of the citizens' poll-watching group, Danao is one of the "critical areas" in the Philippines where election cheating and violence are considered likely to occur.

Yet all nine of the abused volunteers of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections, known as Namfrel, recently turned up at a meeting of the group's Danao chapter to offer their services again for next month's elections, Concepcion said. Their action, he said, symbolized something new in Philippine politics: a willingness by many people to risk their lives to ensure clean and honest elections.

Whether such risks really will be taken when the crunch comes on election day remains to be seen, but it is generally believed that safeguarding the electoral process will be a crucial factor in who wins the election.

It is taken for granted here that cheating will occur -- that voters will be bribed or intimidated, that ballots will be cast in the names of persons too young or too dead to vote, that attempts will be made to monitor the supposedly secret ballot and to falsify election returns for entire towns or provinces.

The problem, as Concepcion put it in a press briefing today, is how to limit election fraud to a "tolerable" level that will ensure a genuine mandate for the eventual winner and avert an escalation of violence in the country.

Political observers also generally agree that, while both parties are capable of cheating, it is Marcos' ruling New Society Movement that has the money, machinery and reputation for serious electoral fraud.

Apart from the expected irregularities, Marcos appears to have had no qualms about using the powers of his office for electioneering purposes while campaigning in recent weeks.

Today, for example, he announced an 11 percent cut in gasoline prices effective Saturday.

He also has announced reductions in electricity rates in certain areas, cut sales taxes, eased repayment terms for government loans, distributed land from military reservations and other tracts to tenants and squatters, and ordered the release of millions of dollars for local development projects in places he has toured.

In addition, Marcos' party has used government employes to staff its campaign operations, bused in servicemen in plainclothes from military bases to beef up crowds at Marcos rallies and ferried campaign materials to distant parts of the archipelago aboard Air Force planes.

Essentially, opposition and independent sources say, the Marcos reelection campaign is largely being financed in one way or another by Philippine taxpayers.

According to Concepcion, Namfrel has been flooded with reports that large quantities of extra ballots already have been prepared, that fake watermarked paper is being manufactured to falsify returns and that substitute ballot boxes are being produced and shipped to key locations.

"If we try to follow all these leads, we'll go crazy," said Concepcion.

Instead, the citizens' group is gearing up to detect cheating as it occurs on and after election day, and it is urging the formation of nine-member "special task force" teams, each including five marines, to help promote clean elections in at least 20 and as many as 100 "critical areas."

Namfrel also plans to blanket this country of more than 7,000 islands with at least 500,000 volunteer poll-watchers.

The organization expects to be able to cover 80 to 85 percent of the country's 90,000 voting centers, supplementing watchers that Marcos' party and the "dominant opposition party" are allowed to have there.

Far more than the relative handful of foreign observers, who will not be permitted within 55 yards of the voting places during the balloting, it is Namfrel's network of poll-watchers that is considered a key to holding a reasonably clean election.

Also vital to the process, Namfrel organizers say, is the group's ability to report the voting results.

However, Namfrel and the Marcos-appointed Commission on Elections are still wrangling, less than two weeks before the voting, over the conduct of an "Operation Quick Count."

The commission now is moving to conduct its own quick count amid indications that it may prohibit the citizen watchdog group from doing a similar independent tabulation of results prior to official "canvassing" of election returns.

A "quick count" in May 1984 by the watchdog group caught the Marcos administration by surprise and is widely credited with having reduced the opportunities for cheating in some areas.

To alert poll-watchers about what to look for during the voting and counting, Namfrel has published a manual describing various ways politicians traditionally cheat their opponents in Philippine elections.

Among them are the use of "flying voters," who cast their ballots early and often in the tradition of U.S. machine politics, and a practice known here as lanzadera, a system of rotating ballots by which a "buyer" of votes can be assured that he gets what he is paying for.

In this practice, a voter is given a blank or fake ballot before receiving his legally assigned ballot. He casts the phony one and gives his blank assigned ballot to another voter outside the polling place.

This voter then fills it out to the buyer's satisfaction, goes into the polling place and repeats the process. To guard against this system, the citizen group's volunteers are warned to carefully compare serial numbers on ballots and voting records.

Besides the run-of-the-mill practices of vote-buying and bribery of election inspectors, the group's manual lists more than 40 other methods of cheating short of murder.

They include kidnaping voters and holding them so they cannot vote, spreading false reports about the withdrawal or disqualification of a candidate, changing the location of polling places without notice, substituting ballots with fake or previously prepared ballots during "recess or brownouts or during simulated disorder designed to create confusion in the polling places."

Besides the more blatant means of electoral fraud, numerous quirks and loopholes in election rules here differentiate Philippine elections from their original models in the United States, which ruled this country as a colony during the first half of the century.

Chief among them is a provision in a new omnibus election code passed by the Marcos-controlled parliament in November regarding the death, disqualification or withdrawal of a candidate.

The provision allows the candidate's party to substitute another candidate for one who died, withdrew or was disqualified up to noon of election day. This means that, in theory at least, voters could be casting their ballots for another candidate without knowing it.

For example, the ailing 68-year-old president could withdraw at the last minute and be replaced by his wife, Imelda Marcos.

Since, under the Philippine system, voters must write in the names of their choices, a vote for "Marcos" would thus be counted for Imelda Marcos, and even a vote for "F. Marcos" would count for her because an "erroneous initial" does not invalidate the ballot under the election code.

Under the law, a vote for Marcos for president automatically would count for the party's vice presidential candidate if that space were left blank.

Another difference from the U.S. system is that split tickets are allowed, meaning that a voter could write in the names of presidential and vice presidential candidates from different parties. Thus, with Marcos and his running mate, Arturo Tolentino, pitted against opposition candidate Corazon Aquino and her running mate, Salvador Laurel, there are really four possible tickets that a voter can choose.

Other candidates are also in the race, the strongest of whom is opposition legislator Eva Estrada Kalaw, who is running alone for vice president on behalf of her wing of the Liberal Party.

A final loophole stems from the circumstances in which Marcos called for next month's election more than a year before his six-year term is due to expire. To circumvent a requirement that a presidential vacancy occur before an early election can be held, Marcos submitted a letter of resignation effective after the election. It stipulates that the presidency will become vacant if the election is actually held and if the winning candidate is proclaimed by the Commission on Elections and is able to assume office within 10 days.

Critics point out that this leaves Marcos a variety of methods by which he can remain in office even if he loses. Among these, they say, are a declaration of a "failure of elections" for any of various reasons or the prevention of his opponent's proclamation.