Filipinos OK Marcos strong-presidency plan

Voters in the Philippines have approved a new French-style presidential system under which the country's strong man, Ferdinand Marcos, hopes to extend his 16-year rule.

With the new strong presidency approved by a predicted landslide, elections are now scheduled for June. So far it is unclear if Mr. Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972, will have an opponent in the balloting for president.

The plebiscite began the process of constitutional tinkering President Marcos has outlined since he formally ended martial law Jan. 17.

Until then he had been both president and premier under a system some regarded as an adaption of British-style parliamentary government. (Before Mr. Marcos's declaration of martial law, the Philippines had an American-style presidency, in force since 1935.)

The plebiscite lays the way for a strong-man presidency without what was once formally called martial law.

The president will remain commander in chief of armed forces and will have the legislative power to "formulate guidelines of national policy." He can continue to rule by decree whenever he believes there is a grave threat of emergency. He can name the prime minister and other high officials, and he can order preventive detention of anyone suspected of subversion.

The president will also have the power to dissolve parliament during his six-year term. He will be eligible for unlimited reelection. One controversial provision gives him and his associates lifelong immunity from suit for official acts.

Opposition leaders charge all of this grants Mr. Marcos sweeping powers with which to institutionalize his strong-man rule.

But since they contend that elections under Mr. Marcos are farces, they have been reluctant and unable to agree on a candidate of their own for the June presidential elections.

After the plebiscite, ex-Sen. Gerardo Roxas, a key leader of the United Democratic Opposition (UNIDO), said that an attempt to falsify returns in a southern region reinforced his belief that UNIDO should stay way from the June elections.

(As of this writing, final returns were not in, although an overwhelming landslide for the President's proposals was reported.)

The President's forces contend results this week show popular backing for Mr. Marcos's proposals. Critics say it simply shows the power of the patronage machinery established throughout the country under martial law.

Throughout the years of martial law, President Marcos has used a flood of constitutional amendments and legalistic devices to keep his opponents off balance. Invariably they end with elections or plebiscites. Invariably the opposition must decide whether to participate and risk defeat -- or to boycott and appear powerless.

A foremost candidate would be former Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr., now living in the United States. But at age 48 he does not meet the new Constitution's age requirement of 50.

Moreover, Mr. Aquino faces a host of criminal charges involving murder, subversion, and illegal possession of firearms.

Balloting this week was generally peaceful, despite scattered reports of shootings.

Partial, unofficial returns showed affirmative votes of 90 percent or more of votes cast by 20 million registered voters.

But the government suffered losses in traditional opposition areas of Batangas, Zamboanga, and Cebu.

Sensing victory, President Marcos decreed a special session of the current interim legislature to begin April 14 to pass laws governing June elections.

He also declared that the ruling New Society Movement will hold a national convention April 20 to pick him as presidential candidate. The official campaign period for June elections will start April 21, the President said.

All this lays down a challenge to the divided and ineffectual opposition. So far there is no sign t hey have found a way to respond.

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