Manila — A major debate on the nature of President Corazon Aquino's government -- whether it is revolutionary or constitutional -- masks in part a more basic fight in the Cabinet: the power struggle between Mrs. Aquino's supporters and followers of Vice-President Salvador Laurel. But it also encompasses a discussion about the extent to which the new government wants to dismantle the structures of the Marcos era and the speed with which this can be done.
The Aquino government, brought to power by a largely nonviolent popular uprising, has yet to state categorically if it is ruling under the 1973 Constitution -- written by overthrown President Ferdinand Marcos -- or if it is a revolutionary government that may disregard the laws and institutions of the former regime.
Some of Mrs. Aquino's ministers and close advisers feel the new regime is revolutionary and want to declare this publicly. Antonio Cuenco, minister of political affairs, said Saturday that the Aquino administration plans within a few days to proclaim itself a revolutionary government and promulgate a new constitution.
Jovito Salonga, minister in charge of the Commission on Good Government, charged with investigating financial and other misdeeds of the former regime, has also decribed the new government as a ``revolutionary'' regime with ``very sweeping powers.'' This point of view makes the old government institutions, such as the National Assembly or the Supreme Court, irrelevant.
The practical consequence of this viewpoint has been the large-scale replacement of mayors, governors, and other local officials by the new minister of local government, Aquilino Pimentel. [Reuters reported Saturday that 13 generals who had served under Marcos have been placed under house arrest by the Aquino government.] Some government officials describe these actions as a natural first step to securing real political power throughout the country: 90 percent of local administrators, they say, are Marcos appointees. Last Thursday, for example, Aquino's executive secretary, Joker Arroyo, defended the replacing of local officials, saying they are ``the very people who cheated in the elections -- the ones who caused this abnormal situation.''
This line is hotly contested by supporters of Mr. Laurel. They feel the argument in favor of revolutionary government is really a weapon being used against their party, the United Nationalist Democratic Organization (Unido). ``They are planning to dismantle us by the so-called power of revolutionary government which follows no rules,'' a senior Laurel aide said last week.
In public, Laurel supporters say the government should proceed for the time being under the 1973 Constitution, work with the National Assembly, and have Aquino's rule legalized. This would also avoid any major changes in local government for the immediate future.
``We should stabilize the the situation as quickly as possible,'' says Rene Espina, Unido secretary-general. Mr. Marcos's former party, the New Society Movement (or KBL), is willing to proclaim Aquino President, Ms. Espina says, which would immediately put to rest any debate over the government's legality.
Privately, Unido officials raise another major objection to the present approach: Their leaders are not appointing the new officials, and their supporters are not benefiting from the hand-out of jobs.
With the exception of Mr. Laurel's home province of Batangas, a senior Laurel aide complained recently, all the positions had gone to supporters of the Pilipino Democratic Party (PDP) or other groups close to Aquino. The official, who asked not to be identified, claimed that Laurel supporters had fared equally badly in the distribution of Cabinet positions. Laurel himself has three posts: vice-president, premier, and foreign minister.
``But other than Doy [Laurel's widely used nickname], there is only one real Unido man in the Cabinet -- Luis Villafuerte,'' the aide claimed. Mr. Villafuerte, a former Marcos Cabinet minister, is minister for government reorganization. Other ostensible Unido ministers are either closer to Aquino or are ``fence-sitters,'' the aide said.
The Laurel aide claimed that Unido had expected much more. ``They promised us a 40-60 split,'' the aide said. ``We're getting the short end of the bargain.''
Laurel has already threatened once to resign his Cabinet positions, said the aide, who refused to rule out the possibility of Laurel and other ``Unido loyalists'' pulling out of the Cabinet in the near future. Another Unido official said that an alliance between Unido and the remaining KBL members of the National Assembly would make for a formidable opposition. This alliance could, however, only take place if the Aquino government decides to work under the 1973 Constitution.
The controversy highlights the deep split between Unido and other members of the government. Unido is largely composed of traditionally minded politicians -- some of them former Marcos supporters. PDP is relatively new. Some PDP leaders and many rank-and-file members consciously reject the old-style politics, exemplified by both Laurel and former President Marcos.
PDP is mildly left of center but has borrowed some of its organizing tactics from the Communists. PDP is a cadre party: prospective members have to undergo training seminars before they are allowed to join, and it has emphasized organizing the urban and rural poor.
The difference in approach was underlined during the electoral campaign. Unido was quick to enroll any KBL defectors who wished to join. PDP announced it would not accept any new members during the campaign.
PDP's chairman is Aquilino Pimentel, Unido's nemesis. Its secretary-general is Jose Cojuangco, Aquino's brother. Both men, the Unido official said, harbored personal animosity toward Laurel and his party.
Faced with widespread protests from local officials and Unido and KBL officials, Mr. Pimentel has slowed the rate of replacement of local officials. Instead, local elections may be held in June -- a month later than originally planned. Another solution to the controversy would be to call a constitutional convention to replace the 1973 Constitution. Both ideas are under consideration, government officials say.