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Cory Aquino: Starting the Campaign with Hope and a Prayer

5 minute read
Sandra Burton/Manila

As Corazon Aquino agonized more than a year ago over whether to challenge Ferdinand Marcos for the presidency, she was closely observed by TIME Correspondent Sandra Burton, who was assigned to Manila. In the following account, Burton, who is writing a book on the Philippines, recalls how the future President made the toughest decision of her life.

During the week after Marcos’ announcement of snap elections, Cory was anxious and confused as she moved from one meeting to another. Though few knew it at the time, she was quietly undergoing a crash course in the art and issues of presidential campaigning under the tutelage of her brother Jose (Peping) and a selected group of advisers from business and academia.

One consultant, a communications specialist from the University of the Philippines, presented her one Friday morning with the findings of a voter survey just conducted in the Manila metropolitan area. He delivered a lengthy lecture, complete with columns of figures laboriously drawn on a blackboard. Impatiently, Cory asked him to “just give me the rough estimates of what people think now.” His conclusion: voter satisfaction with Marcos, which had plummeted shortly after her husband’s assassination, had gradually inched up to the point where 30% were for Marcos, 30% against and a high 40% undecided.

Far from being the political novice people liked to consider her, Cory | was able to draw on the considerable knowledge and acumen she had absorbed during her years as the wife of Marcos’ chief rival. She quickly concluded that the figures were not as bad as they seemed. “Ninoy always said that the administration has a captive 30%, the opposition a stable 30% and that what elections are all about is how to bring over the 40%.”

Pointedly, she queried the professor about how to appeal to the undecided voters. “Do the people understand abstract things like truth, justice and freedom that I always talk about or do they only understand material things?” The professor was evasive, so Cory described a trip she had made as chairman of a drive to aid the economically depressed island of Negros. “The people welcomed me, but it was because I was bringing them a check, which meant rice for them,” she said frankly. “I have the impression that if elections are held, we are lost, because only Marcos can give them rice and pesos.” Then, restless at so much inconclusive talk, she excused herself to go to a nearby church for Mass. “If you have some answers,” she said curtly in parting, “please let us know.”

Prayer is an important element in Aquino’s daily life and decision making. After she has queried a variety of family members, technocrats and veteran politicians, she asks for divine guidance. Although waiting for inspiration may slow her down, it also produces resolute action once she makes up her mind. On this occasion, she felt she had exhausted the advice of others without finding an answer. Aquino says that when she entered the sanctuary, she “prayed as I had never prayed before, saying, ‘Please, Lord, tell me what to do.’ “

The following day, as supporters pressed harder than ever for a commitment, she sought escape. First she went on a shopping expedition arranged by her daughter Viel and bought dress fabrics in her trademark yellow color. Later she treated herself to two home video movies selected by her sister. “One,” she said, “was about a widower who cannot forget about his wife — something nice and light with no complications. It made me happy.”

On Sunday morning, Nov. 10, Aquino went to the Manila Memorial Park cemetery to attend a Mass for dead family members, as she had done on the tenth day of every month since her mother died. In the course of lunch afterward with the celebrant, Monsignor Orlando Panlican, she repeated the critical, unanswered question: Could the opposition, if it put up a common candidate, beat Marcos?

“Monsignor, you have been dealing with the barrio people for so long, can you tell me?” she asked. “Do you think they know that the main cause of their suffering is Marcos? Do they realize and believe that the opposition can give them a better life? Can they understand abstract concepts like truth, justice and freedom?”

The priest’s reply made a powerful impression. “Yes, they can,” he said, “in the same way they can understand abstractions connected with Marcos, because he personifies evil and suffering.” Then, asked Cory, “how do you personify truth, justice and freedom?” The priest was unequivocal: “You must be certain that the person you select is very different from Marcos. Then it will be easy.” There it was — the idea given flesh in a way that Aquino intuitively understood and could translate to the Filipino electorate. By the end of the meal, she knew what she would do.

Nonetheless, she went ahead the next day with a spiritual retreat, planned earlier to help her reach a decision, at a convent of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration just outside Manila. “I had one day free, and I wanted to spend it praying,” she explained. She told her Jesuit spiritual adviser that she wanted to fast, but he urged her not to. “The nuns will be so disappointed,” he said, “if they cannot offer you food.” She insisted, adding that she would bring only a few crackers to keep up her strength. In the end, Cory could not refuse the nuns’ hospitality, and she sipped a cup of their cream of mushroom soup with her crackers.

Ten hours of meditation confirmed her in the earlier decision. “We had to present somebody who was the complete opposite of Marcos,” she said, “someone who has been a victim.” She was modest but unflinching in her judgment of just who that person should be. “Looking around, I may not be the worst victim, but I am the best known.”

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