Marcos political machine stalled - but still in the running

The results of the May 14 elections here are inconclusive, but their effect on Philippine politics is likely to be crucial. The Marcos political machine, the Movement for a New Society (KBL), has been shaken. Its usual mixture of pork-barrel patronage and strong-arm tactics failed to produce the desired results. Some KBL leaders have realized that President Ferdinand Marcos and, to an even greater degree, his wife Imelda, were major election issues.

And in the next three years the KBL has to face two more electoral tests - the 1986 local elections and 1987 presidential race.

On the other side of the political fence the middle-class, middle-ground opponents of the regime, have wrested back the political initiative from the far left.

These developments have come at a worrying time for the KBL. The economy is in a state of near collapse, but economic observers say it has not yet hit rock bottom. The President is aging and probably ailing. Some of his authoritarian powers have been abandoned, and the key remaining one - Amendment 6 to the Constitution, which allows him to rule by decree - will be under fire when the new Batasang (Assembly) convenes June 30.

Other signs suggest even more strongly the end of an era: There is persistent talk in KBL circles that the President will run for reelection again in 1987, but will then hand over power to his vice-president. Jockeying for that position has already begun. One of those maneuvering for position is Mrs. Marcos. While many observers feel that this month's election result was a personal rebuff for her, she does not seem to share this view.

KBL leaders have already found a convenient explanation for their electoral problems. Their organization at the barangay level - a city district or village in the countryside - simply ''folded up,'' as one defeated candidate put it.

In fact, the barangays apparently tried to produce the right results in the usual way. They were, however, hindered by several new factors in this year's elections.

A new electoral code - pushed through the National Assembly after the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. last August - allowed closer public supervision of ballots and prohibited barangay officials, at least in theory, from voting centers. The National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), further inhibited the barangay machine.

And the machine was swamped by antigovernment feeling. As Gerry Espina, a deputy minister defeated in his attempt at reelection in Manila, put it: ''A dog running against the KBL could have won in Manila.''

In their more private moments, KBL leaders admit that other issues were much more important in the election setback. The economy was one, the Aquino assassination another. But the Marcoses themselves were perhaps the greatest.

(Cory Aquino, the widow of the assassinated senator, said in Boston last week: ''I hope Mr. Marcos has finally received the message of the Filipino people - that they are tired of his dictatorship.'')

3 ''Many people seemed to feel that the President had been in power for too long,'' says Mr. Espina. ''This brought about a strong desire for change.''

Espina is still young, ambitious, and a Marcos loyalist. He feels his personal setback is only temporary, and believes that Marcos can still retrieve the situation.

Some KBL leaders are less charitable about Mrs. Marcos. They feel that she was perhaps the key factor in the electoral reverse. Many, however, doubt that she has even noticed this.

''Very off the record,'' says a defeated Cabinet member, dropping his voice as he speaks, ''the First Lady (Mrs. Marcos) has become very, very unpopular. Her reserve of popular goodwill has long been gone.''

The same person contends that Mrs. Marcos played a major, disastrous role in campaign strategy. Her solution to all problems, the Cabinet member claims, was more money.

''In the last weeks of the campaign she was shown polls which made it clear that the KBL would be wiped out in Manila,'' the source says. Mrs. Marcos's response was to put more money in. That, the Cabinet member says, made things worse.

''The massive handouts of money to KBL people - thousands of them turning up at the Malacanang (presidential palace) - had already created the wrong impression. It looked scandalous.''

The former Cabinet member said that the handouts should have been done more discreetly. The President, he says, agreed.

The handouts seemed to be organized by the First Lady's own machine, which sometimes overlaps with the official KBL organization, but often does not. A KBL source claims that the President was not even sure how much money the First Lady was giving out. During the ceremony, Mr. Marcos is said to have sidled up to one minister and asked, ''How much is she giving them?''

Mrs. Marcos seems undeterred by these rumblings of discontent. Though she has remained remote from the press since the elections - rather understandable, since she predicted a clean sweep for the KBL in all of Manila's 21 seats - her close aides have been exuding confidence. (At the time of writing, the opposition led the KBL in 15 seats, and at least two government victories were under protest.)

Jolly Benitez, a Stanford-trained technocrat and Mrs. Marcos's deputy at the Ministry of Human Settlements, insisted the election was no setback for the First Lady. ''The people most associated with her - myself, (Metro Manila Vice-Governor) Mel Mathay, (Food Minister) Jess Tanchanco, all won.''

(A well-placed KBL source later remarked, ''Mathay spent 20 million pesos ($1 .4 million) on his campaign. Anybody could win with that amount.'')

The election results, Benitez said, would not cause the First Lady to limit her political activities or public visibility. Neither, Benitez believes, have they dented her political ambitions.

When the time comes for change, in 1987 or otherwise, Benitez says, ''I see her as (presidential or vice-presidential) candidate, or kingmaker - or both.''

This would be a blow to the United States, which is obviously unhappy at the prospect of Mrs. Marcos playing any major role in the succession. It might also be a disappointment for other KBL leaders like National Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, Labor Minister Blas Ople, or business magnate Eduardo Cojuangco, all of whom are quietly preparing the ground for their presidential bids.

But it would further increase the opposition's hopes of success in the presidential race. This month's elections have given a tremendous boost to the morale of the political middle ground, which up to now had been watching the political initiative shift to the left - to the boycott movement and communist underground.

Now it is the turn of some boycott leaders to be bewildered, while the Communist Party, which seems to have been reckoning on a crude government sweep, has been slow to comment on the results.

The middle-class organizations say they will keep going after the elections. Namfrel has announced plans to become the ''people's watchdog.'' Namfrel's leader, Joe Concepcion, denies - rather mildly, it would seem - having any presidential ambitions himself. The business community has already made its plans to keep the pressure on the government.

The political opposition is slower. The main opposition groups - the United Nationalist Democratic Opposition (Unido) and the smaller Pilipino Democratic Party - benefited from, but did not stimulate, the antigovernment backlash.

They now have to tighten up their organizations and find a single credible candidate to pit against the KBL in 1987. This will not be as easy as it sounds.

Opposition sources feel their most credible candidate would be Mrs. Aquino. In the last nine months, she has shown deft political instincts, but is still thought to be reluctant to run for office.

(In Boston last week, Mrs. Aquino remarked, ''I will remain on the sidelines.''

(Asked by the Monitor whether she should run because she is considered by some to be the only one who could bring unity to the opposition, her only response was a quick shrug and smile.)

Some opposition sources say that one thing that might induce her to run would be Imelda Marcos as an opponent.

If Mrs. Aquino does not run, the opposition seems inclined to look to Unido's Salvador Laurel, who did not run for office this time, or the Pilipino Democratic Party's Aquilino Pimentel, who was elected to the National Assembly from the southern city of Cagayan de Oro.

Laurel is not highly regarded among oppositionists, but has the support of the inner Unido leadership. Pimentel is better viewed, but his party is much smaller.

At the moment, however, opposition leaders seem boundlessly confident.

''As long as we are united behind one candidate in 1987,'' says Unido's Ernie Maceda, ''we have a very good chance.''

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