Manila — The Philippines' electoral campaign began with a bang this week. President Ferdinand Marcos's political party turned out a rally that was a tour de force of machine politics - a display of sophisticated organization and impressive financing.
The large gathering in a Manila park was also the setting for Mr. Marcos to resume the political offensive just before the May 14 legislative elections and after seven months of turmoil following the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino.
But the rally highlighted a big problem for Marcos's New Society Movement (known as KBL): Can the party turn its money into popular enthusiasm and votes?
In a long, aggressive speech, Marcos strongly criticized his political opposition. In particular, he claimed that the underground Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army, had been organized in the central Luzon province of Tarlac in the late 1960s with the help of opposition politicians.
''If necessary,'' he warned, ''I will name names.'' He did not need to: Tarlac is Aquino's home province and former political stronghold.
The charge was old, but its timing striking. It came less than a week after the government version of the Aquino murder - that he had been killed by a small-time gangster in communist pay - began to crumble, and suspicion shifted to the military escorts who met Aquino on his return home. In reviving it, the President seemed to be signaling that he would not consider the Aquino name sacrosanct, and that he was finally emerging from the semi-isolation that had begun shortly before the Aquino killing.
As he made the attack, Marcos looked fitter than he has for many months. Senior ministers interviewed recently admit that the President's health has been erratic in the last year, but claim ignorance of the cause.
An analyst in Washington, however, recently told this correspondent that Marcos apparently has been receiving dialysis treatment for a kidney ailment. In recent months he has been consulting a faith healer. The healer, to the reportedly intense irritation of some Marcos followers, is now running for election on the KBL's slate.
Also of high interest is that the the President's oldest daughter, Imee Marcos Manotoc, is running for the National Assembly. She will run in the ''family'' home province of Ilocos Norte, where her brother is already governor. Imelda Marcos, the President's powerful wife and a minister in the Cabinet, noted that Marcos had said that he was opposed to the idea of a dynasty. She reportedly added that her daughter's candidacy was the people's will.
One person who is definitely not running is Mrs. Marcos. There was doubt about her electoral intentions almost until the last minute.
This was partly due to the fact that she has several times in the past announced her irrevocable decision not to run, and then changed her mind. It was also partly due to a KBL-inspired campaign of speculation that Mrs. Marcos would once again change her mind in the face of ''overwhelming public clamor.''
As it happened, the drama of the occasion was undermined slightly by the fact that her speech, entitled ''The liberation of the spirit,'' was printed and distributed to at least some of the faithful before she arrived at the rally.
''My countrymen,'' the speech began, ''I am not a candidate. In declining to heed your clamor, I do not shirk the burdens of service to you and country.
''Your love has set me free,'' the speech went on, ''to rise above partisan politics (and) your confidence has given me the courage to enlist in the authentic revolution, the revolution of the poor, to free our people from the bondage of deprivation.''
She was probably right not to heed the clamor; it was after all rather restrained.
Most of it came from a large group of ''Metroaides,'' the paid street sweepers in Metro Manila, brought in from nearby Quezon City by Manila Vice Governor Ismael Mathay, one of Mrs. Marcos's closest lieutenants. The aides were positioned prominently in one wing of a grandstand to the left of the main stage.
Their clamor was carefully orchestrated.
A man standing at the corner of the stage closest to the aides gave them their cue with vigorous waves of both arms. This was taken up by two other cheer leaders standing below the aides. One was a seemingly tireless man in a natty safari suit and gold-rimmed sunglasses, the other more restrained, waving his walkie-talkie like a conductor's baton.
Some of the aides said they had been promised 20 pesos ($1.40), free lunch, and a KBL T-shirt. Others said simply they had been told to come.
Most of the participants had been promised attendance allowances, as far as reporters could ascertain. The going rate seemed to be 20 pesos, though some were promised more.
Employees of the nearby Manila Hotel, a government-owned luxury hotel, were told to expect 50 pesos plus the usual supplements. So were government officials from the office directed by Gerry Espina, an ambitious young deputy minister and KBL candidate in Manila.
Many other ralliers came from ministries, government enterprises, and businesses owned by government supporters. Nearly all were bused in. Throughout the rally, small groups could be seen huddled around their organizer, waiting to sign an attendance list. If they didn't sign the list, they explained, they would not get their allowances.
The allowances alone must have cost a tidy sum. Assuming that 100,000 people were mobilized - government sources later claimed 1 million - this would represent an outlay of about $150,000. Add to this the food, gasoline, T-shirts, massive sound system, color television relay, and spotlights, a total cost of about $500,000 would not seem an extravagant estimate.
Not everyone was paid, though. Some were ordered to attend. Sitting immediately below the aides were several hundred young men with short-cropped hair and new KBL T-shirts. An older man with them described them as ''KBL youth, '' then hastily withdrew. They described themselves as marines, bused into the capital that morning. Similarly outfitted young men in other parts of the rally said they were members of the Philippines Constabulary.
The big problem was the crowd's response. In size, the rally resembled some antigovernment demonstrations after the Aquino assassination. The spontaneity and passion, however, were totally lacking. The arrival of the Marcoses and the announcement of KBL candidates stimulated only polite applause, and for much of the time the spectators looked faintly bemused by the proceedings.
A wild show-biz interlude generated a little more enthusiasm. For about 10 minutes the stage resembled the finale of a television spectacular. Some of the country's more colorful entertainers - including a dwarf film actor, a lady in a red body stocking, and a wildly discoing couple built like sumo wrestlers - took over the podium.
When dusk fell and the President started his speech, though, the crowd's attention began to taper off.
Some groups gathered around the television relays; others chatted on the grass. Children played with bottletops. In the waiting buses, people dozed, snacked, or listened to rock music.
The KBL, it seemed, can get people to a rally, but it cannot make them cheer.