Philippines' Laurel: the opposition's traditional politician

''If the (Philippines) elections are clean,'' says Salvador Laurel, the leader of the United Democratic Opposition (UNIDO), ''we'll win 60 to 70 percent of the vote. If they're not, maybe 30 percent.''

In fact, the opposition would probably have trouble winning even a clean election at the moment.

It is badly divided, lacks funds and a leader, and has a serious credibility problem. Tactics like fielding recent defectors from the ruling party may deepen popular cynicism about elections rather than galvanize the voters.

The opposition these days -- at least those who have not opted for armed struggle as the communist underground advocates -- is split roughly three ways.

The largest group is the traditional politicians, who enjoyed power before martial law was declared in 1972 and want it back. They are grouped around UNIDO.

Then comes a smaller group, on polite but distant terms with UNIDO. These people feel they have to participate in the elections to get new blood into politics. Benigno Aquino's widow, Corazon, often speaks for them.

Finally there are the boycotters, led by Mrs. Aquino's brother-in-law Agapito (Butz) Aquino. They are influenced by older, strongly nationalist politicians who feel that Philippines politics changed irrevocably after martial law.

Former Sen. Salvador Laurel, invariably known as ''Doy,'' epitomizes the traditional politicians.

His father, Jose P. Laurel, was president under the Japanese. Tried for collaboration after the war, he was amnestied in 1947.

Doy denies having presidential ambitions, but few believe him. In fact, he does not see himself purely as an opponent of President Marcos: Late last year, while feeling was still high after the Aquino assassination, he told this correspondent he would serve as Marcos's vice-president ''if that is the decision of the party.''

Laurel's party, the remains of the once powerful Nacionalistas, is headed by his brother. The Laurels have been linked with Marcos for more than 40 years.

In 1940 the young Marcos, accused of the murder of a political rival of his father, pleaded his case before the supreme court. The presiding judge was Jose Laurel. Marcos was acquitted. During World War II, President Laurel twice saved Marcos, then an anti-Japanese guerrilla, from the Japanese police. In 1964 when Marcos's ambitions to be the presidential candidate of the Liberalista Party were thwarted, the Laurels helped him switch parties. He became president the following year. And in 1978, when another old friend, Benigno Aquino, was running a quixotic opposition ticket from prison, Laurel was elected on the government's ticket.

The Laurels broke from Marcos in 1980 after Marcos failed to appoint a relative as an official candidate of the Movement for a New Society (KBL) in an election.

Recalling the incident last month for a Manila magazine, Doy's older brother remarked, ''If Marcos had treated us well, we would probably have been on his side until Ninoy's (Aquino's) death.''

UNIDO feels the biggest problems facing it in the election are the government machine and lack of money.

A new government electoral code allows the opposition to appoint one vote counter in each polling station. But there is a catch: the Commission on Elections (Comelec), officially independent but generally felt to be government controlled, recognizes only one ''dominant opposition group'' in each constituency. And, UNIDO alleges, in around half of the constituencies, Comelec has recognized phony opposition groups.

Without an opposition inspector at the polls, Laurel says, there is no way UNIDO can win. The maneuvering of phony opposition groups, Laurel claims, means that UNIDO has lost about 84 of the 200 seats before polling day. Add to that the 17 appointed National Assembly seats, he says, ''and there goes the majority.''

The next problem is money.

UNIDO says it takes at least 1 million pesos ($60,000) to win a constituency. It does not have that sort of money, it says. (The Marcos government claims that Laurel asked for US funding during a recent visit to Washington. Laurel denies it, but a UNIDO source maintains that financial problems were among the subjects Laurel staffers mentioned to State Department officials.)

UNIDO alleges the government will spend ''at least half a billion pesos'' ($ 30 million) in the election.

UNIDO's solution seems to be to pick candidates who have money and who know the KBL machine well enough to short-circuit it.

In several key areas they have come up with the obvious choice: former KBL men.

In one Manila district, Caloocan City, Virgilio Robles is one of two UNIDO candidates. In 1978, opposition sources say, Robles ''fixed'' the election for the KBL there. Laurel does not deny this.

''Yes,'' he adds, ''and Doc Martinez, his present running mate, was on the receiving end that year. But Robles is a good organizer, and brave,'' Laurel says. ''If the KBL uses guns and goons, he'll fight back.''

Guns and goons seem to loom large in UNIDO thinking. Ramon Mitra, the opposition candidate in the western island of Palawan, will win, UNIDO secretary-general Rene Espina says, ''because he can match the government man dollar for dollar and goon for goon.'' Espina says these formidable assets come from Eduardo Cojuangco, a confidant of the President and one of the richest men in the Philippines. Mitra denies receiving help from Cojuangco.

UNIDO's political machismo may be effective in the short term, but it also may be turning many people off.

Reportedly the most cynical are the so-called martial law babies -- young people just coming of voting age. But the disenchantment extends further: A prominent lawyer who has written a number of key Laurel speeches this year reviewed UNIDO's politicking for candidates and announced he would boycott the elections.

Mrs. Aquino, on the other hand, has come out for participation.

She grimaces as she recalls the reaction to her decision. ''I don't think I'll win many popularity contests now,'' she says. Mrs. Aquino feels the elections probably will not be clean. She has reservations about being too closely identified with UNIDO. But, she says, the elections are the only way to gauge popular feelings and get new blood into the process.

The approach has had a few modest successes.

In one Manila constituency an outspoken young human rights lawyer, Bobbit Sanchez, is running.

Sanchez is popular with the student movement and has close links with the more radical opposition: His law firm represents the boycott movement.

Elsewhere, though, younger candidates have been edged out in favor of UNIDO veterans.

UNIDO tends to dismiss the boycott movement and its leader, Butz Aquino. As election day appraoches, UNIDO says, the boycott will fizzle out.

But the edge that sometimes creeps into UNIDO comments about Butz Aquino suggests they are worried about him.

Butz is surrounded by the activists of ATOM -- the Aug. 21 Movement, named for the date of Benigno Aquino's assassination.

The intellectual underpinnings of the boycott come from older political mavericks. The most prominent are former senators Jose Diokno and Lorenzo Tanada.

Diokno, a glum-looking human rights lawyer and former detainee, is described by a senior official of the now-defunct congress as ''the most brilliant man in the Philippines.''

Tanada, now in his 80s, has been a maverick most of his life. A former student of Felix Frankfurter, Tanada prosecuted the political elite -- including the fathers of Doy Laurel and Benigno Aquino - for collaboration after World War II. He then led a third party in a rigorously two-party system.

Tanada and Diokno advocate a strongly nationalist, populist approach. They recommend boycotting any elections called by Marcos, on the grounds that these can never be honest.

They want radical changes, though exactly where they are going is unclear. In a time of feverish politicking and widespread cynicism, however, their stand on principle seems to attract considerable support.

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