Aquino weathers storms. In two months at helm, Filipino leader has applied deft but sometimes slow hand in managing nation
Manila — With communists on the attack, Marcos loyalists chiding her in the streets, Cabinet ministers speaking out of turn, foreign creditors breathing down her neck, and a constitution still to write, President Corazon Aquino has shown so far that she can ride the whirlwind while directing the storm. ``She confirms that Filipino women are our secret to success in this country,'' says a former top aide to deposed strong man Ferdinand Marcos.
Just two months after taking power, ``Cory'' Aquino has applied a deft but sometimes slow hand in dealing with the very social and political forces she helped uncork in the rebellion that toppled Mr. Marcos, analysts say.
Still, her own staff wonders how she will endure the immense pressures and complexities of running -- and trying to restore democracy in -- a poverty-stricken nation of 55 million spread over 7,100 islands.
``Anyone who would want to be president of this country must be crazy,'' says her spokesman, Rene Saguisag.
One longtime Aquino associate and Cabinet member, however, finds her becoming more forceful in voice and smiling more, despite her protests over having the job ``thrust upon me,'' as she puts it.
By nature a patient woman, Mrs. Aquino appears to critics as too hesitant in tackling day-to-day crises, such as battles between the powerful personalities within her Cabinet or deciding how to deal with the communist insurgents. She tells friends she has difficulty being political, unlike her late husband and former opposition leader, Benigno Aquino Jr., who would have relished the daily leadership tussles. One United States administration official says Aquino dangerously ``stays above the fray.'' Her admirers say she just follows the classic Filipino method of acting only at the 11th hour of a crisis, preferring to delegate, tolerating as much as possible.
Aquino's style of governing has been of more interest here than the host of policies and appointments she made during her first 60 days. Public fascination persists for this meek widow, who inspired a Gandhi-like nonviolent revolt 2 years after her husband's assassination. In fact, despite calls for her to form a political party of her own, Aquino prefers to use the mass media as the method to rally support for her actions, based on the immense popularity she still holds.
One charge against her is that, in establishing a provisional government, abolishing the National Assembly, and appointing all local officials, she has assumed many of Marcos's dictatorial powers.
On the other hand, her supporters charge her with not using these powers to keep dissent and challenges to her authority in check.
In explaining her restraint, she said during an April 23 television interview: ``I'd much rather let one guilty person go . . . than crucify one innocent person.''
The legal powers she assumed March 25 in establishing a ``freedom constitution'' are set to last until a new constitution is written and ratified by plebiscite later this year. A constitutional commission of no more than 50 Filipinos will be appointed by her in a few weeks.
Just what kind of people she appoints will be the strongest indicator yet of how Aquino will shape the Philippines to her political and philisophical views. Approval of the constitution, expected to be drafted by Sept. 2, will trigger elections for mayors, governors, and legislators, perhaps by year's end or early 1987.
It is the coming elections that provide a focal point for much of the politicking already under way within the broad coalition that Aquino has brought into her Cabinet. To flush out the many pro-Marcos elected local officials and to grant herself time to prepare for a clean election process, Aquino has appointed the controversial chief of the PDP-Laban Party, Aquilino Pimental Jr., as minister of local government to appoint ``officers in charge'' for all local offices.
But his coalition partners, especially the UNIDO party, distrust Mr. Pimental's motives, suspecting he is laying the groundwork for his own party in the elections.
The battle has forced Aquino to step in and preview many of the Pimental appointments in order to keep peace within her house. Relying on the amorphous ``people's power'' that swept her into power, the new President wants to keep party squabbles out of the running of the government.
As a result, party leaders have kept their differences largely below the surface, although open political warfare could erupt later.
One area where she has had to wield little of her popularity is in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. The IMF is in the process of willingly easing its severe conditions to obtain new loans that would ease the nation's $26.2 billion debt. But any IMF pact (which could come as early as next month) won't directly help Aquino cope with a budget deficit estimated to be a staggering 35 billion pesos ($1.75 billion).
The deficit is one reason for the urgency of the task of the Presidential Commission for Good Government in retrieving as much as possible of the ill-gotten wealth of Marcos and his friends and relatives. The panel estimates that the previous regime ``stole'' more than $5 billion over the 20-year Marcos rule.
Unable to launch new programs -- such as agriculture reform -- with a large budget deficit, Aquino faces the prospect of not fulfilling the high expectations brought about by her rise to power, and of a consequent erosion of her support. If economic reforms are delayed, her attempt to woo away members of the insurgency with promises of amnesty would be jeopardized.
That program has faltered on the intensive attacks launched by the communist New People's Army since Aquino took over. In an example of her new forcefulness, Aquino threatened April 20 to strike back at guerrillas, who have recently taken a heavy toll on government troops.
In two attacks by communist guerrillas Thursday and Friday, 17 soldiers and two journalists were killed. Military officials reported a separate clash Friday night and said soldiers killed seven guerrillas.
On Friday, a saddened Aquino said the rebels' attacks had dimmed prospects of reconciliation with the insurgents. Still, her policy of national reconciliation has brought some small success in defections from the communist army, especially around the areas of Davao City.
Further erosion of rebel ranks also depends on her reform of the military. Her first appointment of a general, Jose Almonte, a guiding force of the military reform movement that began while Marcos was in power, reflects her interest in bringing a ``healing'' approach to government. General Almonte has been assigned to teach new ``spiritual values'' to the nation's soldiers, in hopes of preventing abuses. Some 55 more positions at the rank of general remain to be filled (out of a total of 112), giving Aquino a large opportunity to set a new direction for the once-disgraced armed forces of the Philippines.