For three hours, people had been inching forward in a line that crosses the dirt courtyard of Commonwealth Elementary School. But now, the flow had stopped completely because electoral officials in the classroom polling stations were breaking for lunch.

"We're waiting; they're eating," grumbled Rudy Vergara from his spot in the shade. But he didn't leave.

Today's election is seen widely as the first meaningful political contest in the Philippines since 1969. Around the country, millions of Filipinos today put themselves out and occasionally into bodily danger to participate. Amid widespread reports of fraud, intimidation and violence, the turnout was reported heavy among the 26 million voters in this nation of 54 million people. Under law, many polls stayed open late to accommodate voters standing within 30 yards at the 3 p.m. (2 a.m. EST) closing time.

On the island of Cebu, south of this suburb of metropolitan Manila, and in Makati, the capital's financial district, they braved unidentified armed men who were bent on keeping them at home or dictating who they would vote for. In one voting center in Makati, about 20 men, some carrying clubs, turned out the lights and beat independent poll watchers, Reuter reported.

In some cases, the more typical trial was boredom. All over this country of 7,100 islands, lines a hundred people long snaked out under the tropical sun as officials struggled over electoral records. Vendors sold chewing gum and cigarettes.

The delays brought inevitable speculation that they were deliberately caused by the government in an attempt to discourage voters. Some did leave the lines, but most seem to have stayed.

Opponents of President Ferdinand Marcos saw the voting as their one clear shot at throwing him out after 20 years in office. His supporters saw it as their man's hour of need.

"It's our duty to vote," said Crispin Villamor, who showed up at Commonwealth School with a Marcos flyer on his shirt. "You have to follow the government when it says to turn out."

Some people took the government's instructions one step further. Magdalena Abellera, 55, a resident of one of the Manila area's many slums, was one of nine persons caught cheating at her polling place in what Marcos' opponents have said is one of the most common methods of rigging the ballot.

Officials of the independent citizens' watchdog group said this incident represented a fraction of the cheating going on all over the country.

As Abellera was riding a minibus toward a polling place, a woman riding the bus handed her a fake, two-ply sample ballot. If Abellera used it in the voting booth to show that she had voted for Marcos, she would get some money, Abellera said the woman told her. She said that about 20 passengers took the ballots.

Abellera said she had planned to vote for Marcos anyway, but she followed the woman's instructions. In the voting booth, she placed her real ballot over the sample one, and when she wrote in the names of Marcos and his running mate, Arturo Tolentino, they came through the copying paper to the sheet underneath.

Her ballot was disallowed, and she was turned over to poll watchers.

"This is the first time I have done something like this. But I did not think it was evil," she said. Telling her story, she displayed the sample ballot.

Antonio Aquino, a local official of the watchdog citizens' group, National Citizens Movement for a Free Election, known as Namfrel, said he drove by the house where she was to collect her payment. "There were no less than four jeeploads; no less, I would estimate, than 200 people coming out of the house," he said.

Namfrel claimed to have fielded more than 500,000 volunteers today to guard against electoral fraud.

It prospered from a near universal scorn for the government's intention to run a clean election. Wearing white vests with the slogan "I am the guardian of the nation" on the back, the volunteers greeted voters at the door, and inside the polling rooms they kept a sharp eye on proceedings. Many were Catholic priests and nuns.

Their omnipresence engendered some hostility. At a polling station in a YMCA today, a voter who turned out to be an aide to Marcos' wife, Imelda, lashed out at Namfrel and the opposition party, insisting successfully that several opposition observers leave the room because they exceeded the legal numbers.

Marcos today flew to his home province of Ilocos Norte to vote. His wife cast her ballot at a high school in Manila, crossing herself as it disappeared into the slot.

Corazon Aquino, Marcos' opponent, meanwhile, retired to the family estate in Tarlac Province, saying that she had "never been more confident in my life of anything."

Tonight, Filipinos were settling in to watch marathon election return programs. Here again, the polarization between Marcos and the opposition came out.

Government television carried live returns generated by the official Commission on Elections. But people interested in the parallel unofficial count being done by Namfrel in a gymnasium outfitted with banks of personal computers, telex machines and telephones had to tune in to Radio Veritas, which is run by the Catholic Church.