• U.S.

The Philippines: I’m Ready, I’m Ready

11 minute read
George Russell

The air of expectation was palpable last week outside the gates at the presidential Malacañang Palace in the capital city of Manila. Participants arriving for a specially scheduled Cabinet meeting and a caucus of the ruling New Society Movement (K.B.L.) began queuing up at the palace an hour and a half early. At last, Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos called on his ministers to endorse their main item of business: Cabinet Bill No. 7, a call for elections to choose a President and Vice President on Jan. 17, 1986, 16 months ahead of schedule. The order was approved within seconds.

Moments later, at the caucus meeting in Malacañang’s ornate ceremonial reception salon, Marcos placed the same election bill before some 500 of his governing elite. “We must submit ourselves to a fresh mandate,” he declared. One caucus member objected. Why not wait, he asked, until regularly scheduled presidential elections could take place in 1987? Replied Marcos: “This exercise is needed.” The caucus promptly endorsed the election call and authorized Marcos to choose his running mate “in accordance with political traditions in democratic countries.” The delegates also passed on the order for new elections to the 200-member National Assembly, where the K.B.L. enjoys a nearly two-thirds majority, for consideration this week. The meeting broke up cheerfully as Marcos invited everyone to lunch.

Thus the wily Philippine leader wrapped up the loose ends in an extraordinary new political gambit that he had first unveiled five days earlier. Appearing on ABC-TV’s This Week with David Brinkley, Marcos had startled almost everyone when he declared his willingness to call a snap election “right now.” Said Marcos: “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.” After the program, the Philippine leader stated his preference for Jan. 17 balloting, which would also mark the fifth anniversary of the dissolution of the 1972 martial-law proclamation that began his era of authoritarian rule. Two days later, despite earlier denials, he declared that the balloting would include the vice-presidential contest, reactivating an office that Marcos has kept vacant since 1973 to discourage presidential ambitions among his subordinates. On a rapid foray into the countryside, the President defined the essence of the upcoming campaign in a single word. “The issue,” he declared, “is Marcos.”

In fact, the issue is the future of the Philippines. With one stroke, Marcos had plunged his 7,000-island archipelago and its 54 million people into a new period of political uncertainty. Did his announcement herald a long-awaited democratic solution for a country that is simultaneously being choked by Marcos’ brand of authoritarianism and threatened by a growing Communist insurgency? Or was it just a ploy to fend off the anti-Marcos criticism that has reached a new crescendo in the streets of Manila and the corridors of Washington?

The answers were far from clear. In the confusion that followed the TV announcement, a U.S. official in Washington remarked that Marcos’ decision had “taken everybody by surprise: us, the [Philippine] opposition, even his own inner circle.”

Throwing his opponents off balance is typical for Marcos, who, as former Philippines Foreign Minister Arturo Tolentino, a dissident member of the K.B.L., puts it, “has always looked at political contests in a military way.” Only three weeks ago, Marcos denied firmly that he was contemplating any sudden election move. Many observers attribute his change of heart to pressure from the U.S. Said Marcos’ wife Imelda on the eve of her return to Manila from a three-week trip to New York, Rome, Moscow and Tokyo: “I cannot understand why the U.S. is bullying and trying to isolate the President.”

The Reagan Administration reacted cautiously to Marcos’ election announcement. Said a U.S. Government analyst: “We are under no illusions about President Marcos and his intention to stay in power, about his resources and his tactical brilliance in Philippine politics.” Rather than applaud Marcos’ decision, the U.S. outlined the conditions necessary for the elections to be considered free and fair. Among them were 1) “professional” behavior by the Philippine military, meaning political neutrality; 2) an impartial supervising election commission; and 3) independent civilian observers. Said State Department Spokesman Charles Redman: “If elections are to re-establish confidence, then it is essential that they be credible to the Philippine people.”

The warning was yet another sign of Washington’s deep concern about the political health of the Philippines. Much of the concern is focused on the growing success of an estimated 16,500 Filipino fighters who make up the Communist New People’s Army. Two weeks ago, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage predicted that the battle between the N.P.A. and President Marcos’ 300,000-member armed forces could reach a “strategic stalemate”–a stand-off–within three years. Washington’s greatest concern is of a Communist takeover that would cost the U.S. both a longtime ally and access to two of the most important military installations in the Far East, Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station. The lease agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines covering those installations extends until 1991.

If any U.S. signal may have helped catalyze Marcos’ latest surprise venture, it was a four-day visit to Manila last month by Republican Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada. Laxalt held two meetings with the Philippine leader. At one of them, the U.S. legislator passed along a three-page letter from President Reagan outlining his personal worries about the local situation. As a Laxalt aide recalled last week, Marcos was the first to mention presidential elections, only to reject the idea. By the second meeting, according to the aide, Marcos had changed his mind, at least in principle, and had become “enthusiastic” about elections.

Infact, Marcos first floated the possibility of early presidential elections at a K.B.L. meeting last August. At the time, the Philippine economy, now described by Filipino economic experts as a “basket case,” was already in a severe tailspin. Foreign debt had reached $26 billion, gross national product was shrinking at an annual rate of about 5%, and underemployment was estimated to be 40%. An opinion poll taken by a private think tank with ties to the Roman Catholic Church, however, showed that 44% of the population was willing to credit Marcos and his ruling party with doing a good job. More important, the democratic forces that had been galvanized by the 1983 assassination of Opposition Leader Benigno (“Ninoy”) Aquino were in serious disarray. Nonetheless, Marcos shelved the election idea at that time.

Typically, when Marcos made his decision last week, he did so in a way that was fraught with serious constitutional ambiguities. Under the amended constitution, which Marcos first tailored in 1973 to formalize his rule, presidential elections can be called only if the chief executive dies, resigns, is incapacitated or is impeached. Marcos, however, is reluctant to cede his grip on power for the 60 days of the prospective campaign. Accordingly, the election legislation that goes to the National Assembly this week will be accompanied by a formal letter of resignation from Marcos–but it will take effect only after an election winner has been declared. Cracked a presidential aide: “It’s tantamount to a postdated check.” According to Marcos, that bizarre form of resignation satisfies the constitution’s requirement, even if he wins the election. Said the President: “When the constitution says resignation, does it say immediate resignation? It does not.”

Marcos’ opponents immediately slammed the ploy as unconstitutional and threatened to challenge it before the Supreme Court. The scheme, said Jovito Salonga, a leader of the opposition Liberal Party, was “a masterpiece in absurdity.” If they lose the court challenge, as is likely because Marcos has appointed all of the court’s 14 justices, opposition leaders will have to decide whether to participate in the election or to boycott it. More realistically, oppositionists hope that a Supreme Court fight will give them more time to organize their political machinery. Twelve opposition parties agreed last June to unite around a single presidential candidate in the event of just such a snap election, but so far only three have done so. If opposition leaders can agree with the K.B.L. on the conditions for holding an election, they will then try to hammer out a common ticket, possibly holding a convention to choose their presidential and vice-presidential nominees.

Among those most likely to be chosen as opposition standard-bearer is Corazon (“Cory”) Aquino, 52, widow of the martyred Benigno Aquino, who has become the moral voice of the anti-Marcos parties. She is the one candidate who is considered capable of uniting the fractious democratic resistance to Marcos. Mrs. Aquino has said she would run only if her supporters collected 1 million signatures in her favor. The sole declared candidate to date is former Senator Salvador (“Doy”) Laurel, 56 (see interview). Yale educated and the son of a former Philippine President, Laurel and his United Nationalist Democratic Organization (UNIDO) party have 49 of the 55 opposition seats in the National Assembly. His strongest challenger for the presidential nomination will probably be Liberal Party Leader Salonga, a center-leftist with strong nationalist leanings. Salonga, however, is blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and carries 100 pieces of shrapnel in his body as the result of a political bombing in 1971. Along with those debilitating injuries, he is a Protestant in a predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Despite nearly a year of discussion, the opposition has not yet agreed on its “minimum program” of government, which would serve as a campaign platform. Nor have the opposition parties finished organizing their campaign machinery in the archipelago’s 73 far-flung provinces. Above all, the opposition suffers from a lack of money to carry on an effective nationwide campaign under the demanding conditions of the Philippines.

Yet another difficulty involves leftist participation in the election exercise. A substantial measure of leftist backing will probably be necessary if any opposition presidential candidate is to have a chance against the well-oiled Marcos machine. But the Communist-influenced National Democratic Front, an outlawed political organization that exercises considerable sway over more moderate leftist groups in the Philippines, has not yet decided whether to encourage participation in the snap election. Says Antonio Zumel, a leading member of the clandestine executive committee of the Front: “I think all this is designed to befuddle the opposition. They should know Marcos. He is playing them on the defensive.”

Many moderate opposition figures were trying to delay the elections until March in order to get better organized. Without such a concession from Marcos, they were threatening the possibility of an election boycott. The Marcos regime has hinted that it might be accommodating. Said Philippine Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile last week: “We will be sportive about it.”

In the most Machiavellian view of last week’s events, however, opposition intransigence may ultimately prove to be exactly what Marcos wanted all along. Said a Western diplomat: “Marcos acts in a very tactical way to almost everything, and it is conceivable that his idea in calling the elections was to test a number of things. If the elections are blocked because they are declared unconstitutional, for example, he can say that he tried and he can blame it on those nasty oppositionists.”

Another possibility, of course, is that the durable Philippine leader fully intends to win a new mandate. If he should, that would leave Marcos in office, health permitting, until 1992, a full year after the expiration of the crucial U.S. base agreements. Marcos is reported to be suffering from systemic lupus erythematosus, a degenerative tissue disease that often affects the kidneys. This makes his choice of a vice-presidential running mate all the more important. Many Filipinos are convinced that Marcos is plotting to be succeeded by his wife Imelda, 56, even though both have issued denials. Another possibility is that his running mate would be José Rono, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Local Government.

“This is not a democratic exercise we are talking about,” said Opposition Assemblyman Luis Villafuerte last week. “This is really war.” Whatever twists and turns may follow in the Philippine political drama, all parties concerned are aware that the stakes in the battle are growing higher by the hour. –By George Russell. Reported by Sandra Burton and Nelly Sindayen/Manila

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com