Bangkok, Thailand — The split in the Philippine opposition has changed the nature of February's presidential election. A united opposition led by Corazon Aquino, analysts feel, would have posed a serious challenge to President Ferdinand Marcos. Mrs. Aquino's alliance with Salvador Laurel's United Nationalist Democratic Organization (UNIDO) would have been an uneasy one, but it might have prevented Mr. Laurel from playing the role of spoiler. Now, it appears, Mr. Marcos can sit back and watch his opponents attack each other.
At the moment, Mrs. Aquino's supporters have avoided open criticism of Mr. Laurel. But UNIDO is apparently preparing for a frontal assault on Mrs. Aquino, widow of assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.
Rene Espina, UNIDO secretary-general and a close Laurel adviser, says Aquino is welcome to the vice-presidential slot in the UNIDO ticket. But he holds out little hope for reconciliation:
``When we start demolishing her, telling people who she really is,'' he predicts, ``her organization will fall apart.'' Mr. Espina described Aquino as ``vindictive and fragile, a sort of Southern belle'' with no political experience.
``What can you expect from a housewife who is running on a wave of sympathy for her husband?'' he added.
A senior UNIDO official who asked not to be named said the party would attack her as a ``feudal landlord.'' (Her family owns large tracts of land in Central Luzon.) The offical expressed the suspicion that her cousin, Eduardo Cojuangco, who is close to Marcos and one of the main contenders for the position of Marcos's running mate, was funding her campaign. The official also implied that she was being manipulated by the underground communist movement.
Even if they do refrain from retaliation, Aquino's party, Laban, will be forced to compete with UNIDO for the vital position of Dominant Opposition Party.
The title brings with it the right to have officially-recognized and government-paid poll watchers in each of the country's 90,000 precincts. Espina says that dominant-party status saves a party about $2 million.
Espina indicated that dominant status was one of the main reasons why Laurel backed out of the proposed single opposition ticket. The key issue, he says, was ``the survival of UNIDO as a political party.'' He explained that ``the party obtaining the second-highest number of votes in each election will be DOP [Dominant Opposition Party] in the next. If Laurel ran under Cory's banner and we had been defeated, we would have ceased to be a political party.''
Espina said he expected UNIDO to be given dominant status and saw no reason to split this with Laban. ``Why should we share when we're DOP?'' he asked.
Jovito Salonga, leader of a wing of the opposition Liberal Party and a prominent Aquino supporter, also felt that UNIDO would be declared dominant party. If Marcos behaved as expected, he said Tuesday, ``the weaker [party] will be given dominant opposition status'' in order to make it tougher for the stronger opposition group (in this case Aquino's party).
Although the Laurel camp's Espina dismisses Aquino as a political novice, other UNIDO officials are known to feel differently. Right after the May 1984 elections, Laurel campaign manager Ernesto Maceda told reporters that he felt Aquino, not Laurel, would be the strongest opposition candidate in any presidential election.
And while both UNIDO and the government assert that Aquino would be unable to formulate a policy to handle the economic crisis, she is in fact likely to have very clear ideas on the economy. Her backers include some of the most prominent members of the conservative opposition -- businessmen and entrepreneurs who were politicized by her husband's assassination.
The conservative-but-reformist coloration of her advisers also worries the communist underground. A senior underground activist recently told this writer that a reformist government led by Aquino could force the underground to rethink its current strategy.
Laurel may not announce his running mate until Dec. 14, closing date for parties to file their nominations. His front runners include two women, Espina says. One is Eva Estrada Kalaw, who heads another wing of the Liberal Party. A stronger contender, Espina says, is Minnie Osmena-Stuart, granddaughter of the late President Sergio Osmena and daughter of the late Sen. Sergio Osmena Jr. She is married to an American and, says Espina, spends much time in the US. ``But she comes and goes, and she carries a F ilipino passport,'' he said.