We hear much talk about freedom fighters these days. It is a phrase used to designate armed rebels trying to overthrow governments the president doesn't approve of.

Let us now praise the real thing, the people of the Philippines. With only the ballot for a weapon, they are trying to rid themselves of a government they despise.

No one could see the pictures or read the accounts of those brave souls who tied themselves to ballot boxes or carried them over their heads through shrieking crowds like sacred objects and not understand that these folks are hell-bent for democracy.

The stereotype of Marcos' countrymen as dim cynics resigned to corruption, fraud and oppression, has gone down in the gunfire aimed at poll-watchers or would-be voters by the goons of the incumbent.

The Filipinos have had 20 years of Marcos and his preposterous, grasping wife Imelda. They have had 10 years of the martial law he imposed to fight a "communist threat." They have put up with it all patiently enough -- with human rights violations, beatings, strike-breakings, arrests without charge, imprisonments without trial. But underneath their passivity, it is clear now, they harbored a secret hope that democracy -- taught, if not always illustrated during a long U.S. domination -- was a living thing, or at least a possibility.

Marcos went too far in August 1983, when government thugs murdered Benigno Aquino on his return from U.S. exile to lead the democratic opposition. The streets of Manila boiled with protest. Sober businessmen were out shouting with the rest.

It was never the same after that. Even President Reagan, who has an extremely high threshhold on anticommunist strongmen, decided that Marcos, who was systematically plundering his country, was overdoing it. He sent his friend Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) to read the riot act.

Laxalt reportedly told Marcos that while the United States wishes to keep the naval and air bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field in operation, and wants to put down the communist insurgency, Marcos had to do better to expect continued U.S. aid. Marcos paid no mind.

He thought a snap election would be a piece of cake. The opposition was disorganized. Since he controlled the army, local officials and the electoral machinery, he could control the count.

The anti-Marcos coalition was hopelessly split over the choice of a candidate. Surprisingly, Corazon Aquino, the martyr's widow, insisted she top the ticket; unexpectedly, Salvador Laurel, a seasoned politician, agreed to take second place.

Aquino, a 53-year-old housewife, started out as a dream rival. She had no political experience; she was initially indiscreet in her public statements. How could she hold the pace, stand the gaff? Like many wealthy Filipino girls she had been U.S.-educated. She was a 1953 graduate of Mount St. Vincent's College (Riverdale, N.Y.), a major in math and French. She was involved in her husband's political life, but always in what a friend called "an oriental woman's way -- very quietly."

But Marcos guessed wrong about her. She turned out to be a serene, even radiant contender, indefatigably expressing what Filipinos wanted to hear, a total faith in democracy, a belief that life could be better with Marcos' boot off everyone's neck and a certainty that the popular will would prevail.

But the real story was her followers. They had had little exposure to democratic process in the past 21 years, but they seem to have gotten it all down pat: the rallies, the commercials, and above all the organization of poll-watchers. A watchdog group called Namfrel, deployed thousands of volunteers to keep an eye on the voting. They did it valiantly. They rescued votes from sewers, they sat up all night over ballot-boxes. They defied police and soldiers. They tracked down vote-buying of an order to make Chicago blush. They formed human chains to escort the ballots into cars that would take them to Namfrel.

We may never know who got more votes. But it seems evident, from Marcos' grotesque behavior since election day, that Cory Aquino won -- and probably by a landslide.

The outcome could be decided in Washington by Reagan. If he doesn't come down on the side of the Filipino people, after their magnificent demonstration of courage and commitment, we will know that he wouldn't know a genuine freedom fighter if he fell over one.