Who can recall a foreign election followed so intently by Americans as the vote in the Philippines, and laden with such heavy political freight? The reason is simple enough. The assassination of President Ferdinand Marcos' leading rival in 1983 undercut the legitimacy of a regime that was already failing to deal with economic crisis and an armed insurgency. Suddenly the collapse of the country, and loss of the favored American position in it, seemed, if not imminent, then altogether possible. That this was happening on the watch of a conservative American administration, one disposed to defer to anti- communist authoritarians like Mr. Marcos, magnified the sense of shock and alarm.

But this is far from the whole of it -- or the best of it. The Filipino people themselves appear to have been seized by a full awareness of the importance of the moment. In this respect, whatever happens in the election, the campaign itself may be regarded as a success. It revealed vigorous disagreement over who should take the country into the future, but it produced an evident consensus that the country is in peril and at a turning point and that the old Marcos ways must be laid to rest. Reform was the common platform of the redoubtable and crafty Marcos and the untested but surprisingly determined Corazon Aquino. Whoever prevails, a succession to Marcos is almost certain to begin. One of its first imperatives will be the rehabilitation of an incompetent, crony- ridden military that is totally inadequate to the growing challenge of the communist insurgency. The campaign also brought front and center the question of the fairness of the Philippines' election process. The past practices of Mr. Marcos made this question the priority it became, and public opinion forced him to ccept it as a measure of his own standing now. The Reagan administration has made its own contribution to establishing that the election must be regarded as credible by the Filipino people. This means that the count, as it unfolds over a several-day period, is not the end of the affair. The people, through the volunteer poll- watching organization Namfrel and through the Catholic bishops, will have to pronounce on the validity of the counted results.

As it awoke to the crisis in the Philippines, the administration helped move the focus of the election away from personalities and toward establishing a strong popular mandate for change. Along the way it has incurred charges of intervening too boldly and of not intervening boldly enough. In fact, Philippine myth notwithstanding, American choices have been limited and, so far as we have seen, wisely made. Past entanglements and the necessary deference to Philippine democracy and sovereignty were taken into account. Though the status of the two American bases, Clark and Subic Bay, remains a prime and essential interest of this country, the American government knew it must remember the larger context in which this question will be resolved. That context is the democratic one: It is the Filipinos' country, not ours -- theirs to save, theirs to lose.