Manila — After squandering the popular sympathy bequeathed by the slain Benigno Aquino Jr., the political opposition to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos is in danger of becoming politically irrelevant.
Only three months remain before the national Assembly elections, scheduled for May 14, but opposition groups and parties are divided over whether to boycott the election or to field candidates.
The squabble stands in contrast with the impressive show of unity late last year when opposition groups of varying political colors took to the streets demanding the resignation of President Marcos. Such unity, however, has turned out to be a mere facade.
Meanwhile, the politicians of Marcos's own ruling party, the New Society Movement (known by its Tagalog initials, KBL), have been cashing in on the political spoils. These politicians were noticeably quiet late last year when their's leader's fortunes were ebbing. With Marcos now needing a stronger KBL for the coming elections, his party members are demanding greater personal authority in their respective bailiwicks. And Marcos is hard pressed to reject such demands if he is to avoid rifts within the party.
The opposition stood to gain considerable political advantage from the assembly election. At the same time, an ailing Marcos, desperate to reassure foreign creditors of the stability of the Philippines, was being forced to seek some accommodation with the business, civic, and religious groups clamoring for reforms, which included specific demands to ensure fair elections.
The election, therefore, could be relatively clean. In theory, it promises the opposition a focus for political activity and even the chance for real political power.
It appeared a month ago that the faction-ridden opposition was indeed going to put aside past differences. When it convened a ''People's Congress'' in January, all groups endorsed participation in the assembly elections, subject to President Marcos meeting a set of conditions by Feb. 14. The conditions amounted to safeguards ensuring that the elections would be clean and honest plus the relinquishing by Marcos of his authoritarian powers. Most of the most powerful business, civic, and religious organizations in the country backed the demands.
However, each group making the demands interpreted the conditions according to its own position. The hard-liners, including two of the most outspoken nationalists, Lorenzo Tanada and Jose Diokno, were prepared to campaign under any circumstances for a boycott of the elections in the hope of forcing the President to step down. Moderate opposition leaders eager for a political contest and the chance to obtain at least some political clout, saw the conditions as a bargaining position. The moderates include Salvador Laurel and former Sen. Eva Estrada Kala. A prominent opposition figure, Agapito (Butz) Aquino, brother of the slain senator, now has come out strongly in favor of an election boycott.
President Marcos has been quick to take advantage of these divisions. He has offered a number of concessions, but has stopped short of fully meeting the demands. The result is likely to be that some opposition members will participate in the elections while others will boycott. This will split the opposition vote, and as one political analyst put it, ''The government will not need to cheat.''
The equivocations of the opposition have not been lost on members of Marcos's party. The KBL consists of a coalition of old-style politicians who, confronted with the absolute ascendancy of Marcos when he declared martial law in 1972, chose to go with the winner. For many, joining the KBL meant sacrificing their former autonomy and power.
Several KBL members have seized on the climate of relative political freedom. Sensing that the opposition leaders were incapable of mobilizing the country's unrest, they have returned to their leader's side, while jockeying for more influence.
This is naturally bringing some of the leading KBL politicians into conflict as the spoils are being divided up in the election run up. President Marcos, whose word in such matters was previously law, is now unable to intercede. KBL members who have felt that they will not make it to the party's list of assembly contenders have resigned to run as independents. Thus the outlook for the Philippine election is bleak. President Marcos may well seek to ensure the elections in May are clean and honest. But his own party members, coming from a school of politics where anything goes and sensing considerable rewards, may not allow it to be so.
An effective opposition boycott is unlikely because the majority of Filipinos in rural areas see voting as a civic duty.
However, those opposition groups who will run candidates have dim prospects. They lack a charismatic leader who could possibly inspire the faith of the people.
For now, a government victory seems almost certain, though this will not return Marcos to his previous position of authority. The bitter power plays among locally powerful figures is likely to induce a period of political and social instability.