Corazon Aquino's announcement yesterday that she will run for president could spell serious trouble for President Ferdinand Marcos. Government officials concede privately that Mrs. Aquino, widow of assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., is the candidate who most worries them. If Marcos feels seriously challenged in the election, observers say, his government will take every step necessary, including widespread fraud, to ensure his reelection Feb. 7.
But before she can concentrate on the campaign, Mrs. Aquino, commonly known in the Philippines simply as ``Cory,'' has a major obstacle to overcome: She must persuade another opposition candidate, former Sen. Salvador Laurel, to stand down or take the second seat on her ticket. Given Mr. Laurel's unbridled presidential ambitions, that would be a daunting task.
But sources close to Aquino claim that Laurel is showing some signs of conciliation. The opposition needs Laurel's conciliation, because it is widely believed that, if the opposition fields two candidates, the chances of defeating Marcos are very dim.
Although she is a relative political novice, Aquino's qualifications appear formidable. Since the assassination of her husband in August 1983, she has become something of a moral focal point for many Filipinos -- particularly for the middle class and city-dwellers. She has the backing of Philippine business people and the Roman Catholic Church.
The underground Communist Party also seems to view her as a formidable person to contend with. Party cadres say they feel that a reformist government led by Aquino could prove to be a serious problem for them.
Perhaps most important, Aquino's supporters view her as the bridge between the present authoritarian style of government and political normalization.
Marcos has concentrated all political power in his own hands. Aquino, on the other hand, intends to head a collegial government, her supporters say.
Marcos has been in power for 20 years. In contrast, Aquino says she wants to hold office for only one six-year term.
None of this, however, has impressed Laurel and his followers. They have been scornful of Aquino's candidacy.
``Some people feel that Cory should just stay home and be a housewife,'' says Luis Villafuerte, a former Marcos Cabinet minister who is now a senior Laurel aide.
The contrast between the behavior of the two in past weeks has been dramatic.
Aquino has refused to campaign. Advisers and relatives say she is genuinely loath to take on the presidency. She has, however, apparently been quietly preparing for politics for some time. She has recently taken some informal economics courses at the Center for Research and Communication, a private think tank with links to the conservative opposition.
Laurel, on the other hand, is an old-style machine politician who has pursued his presidential goal with unabashed single-mindedness.
``When Cory met [Jaime] Cardinal Sin [the Roman Catholic primate],'' a source close to the Cardinal says, ``she said, `Please pray for me, to help me make the right decision.' ''
When Laurel met the Cardinal recently, the same source says, he asked the Cardinal to endorse his candidacy.
The Cardinal has offered to act as an intermediary in an effort to present a single opposition ticket in the coming election.
The Cardinal, Aquino supporters say, will play a decisive role in mediating between the two candidates. And, they say, the Cardinal privately shares their belief that only Aquino can beat President Marcos.
Laurel, who was a staunch Marcos supporter until 1980, is believed to have a major credibility problem.
``If Doy [Laurel] runs,'' says one conservative businessman, ``Marcos doesn't even have to bother to cheat.''
At least one other opposition leader, former Sen. Jovito Salonga, has said he will also run if Laurel insists on being a candidate in the election.
The pressure on Laurel to stand down takes several forms. Some prominent businessmen approached by the Laurel camp for campaign funding have reportedly turned him down. Others have told him, in the words of one businessman, that ``if he runs, it'll be a government landslide. And then he will be a finished man. He'll never get a cent from us again.''
Other pressure is more subtle. Some Aquino supporters point out that Aquino may only be a transitional president if elected. Laurel, they say, will not have long to wait before getting another chance for the presidency.
If he stands down this time, he may find businessmen better inclined toward him in the future.
Some Aquino supporters want to offer Laurel the vice-presidency. Some of her advisers say there is ``no way in the world'' Aquino would accept this. Laurel is said to have hinted over the weekend that he would be prepared to accept second position, provided he was also made premier.
But if she does take Laurel as her running mate, Aquino is in danger of losing one of her key advantages -- the moral high ground.
The writer recently spent two weeks in the Philippines.