Filipinos look to plebiscite that will set political scene

Almost all Philippine politicians and would-be politicians will be choosing whether they support President Corazon Aquino or not. Since the February toppling of Ferdinand Marcos, the political lines have been fuzzy, after 14 years of authoritarian rule and the dominance of a single party.

The choice lies in a yes-or-no plebiscite early next year on the country's newly drafted constitution. The document, if passed, would not only create a new government but would give Mrs. Aquino the presidency until 1992.

Many politicians are waiting to see what others will do, or to find out what benefits their support of Aquino will bring them.

``By December, there can be no more balancing acts,'' says one longtime Filipino leader.

For Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, however, the choice is clear.

He publicly opposes the draft constitution, the process by which its framers were appointed by Aquino, and even the legitimacy of the present ``Freedom Constitution,'' which Aquino put in place nine months ago.

Mr. Enrile's outspoken criticism of the proposed charter in recent weeks might have been ignored if it were not for the fact that he helped trigger the revolt last February when he was Mr. Marcos's defense minister.

The groundwork for that nonviolent revolt had been well planned by reformist officers in the military, many of whom backed a then-isolated Enrile. Tired of the corruption and politicization of the military under Marcos, troops simply disobeyed Marcos during the unusual events of Feb. 22-25.

Now Enrile claims that the crowds of civilians who stayed Marcos's action against the defecting troops did so to protect the military and not to support Aquino, that it was he who handed Aquino the reins of power last February, and that it is he -- not Aquino -- who now controls the military.

While Enrile says Aquino won the Feb. 7 presidential election, he says she lost her mandate when she threw out the 1973 Constitution under which she was elected. Her present ``revolutionary'' government, as he calls it, is actually a coalition with him as military leader.

If Aquino fires him, Enrile says, he will leave -- but will ``consult the military organization.''

``We serve no one but the people of this country. This was the mandate of the February revolution,'' Enrile said this week.

``She did not give me my job. I had my job before she took her oath as President of the Republic.''

But interviews with several top officials in the Ministry of Defense and in the armed forces (none of whom wanted to be named) say Enrile is just bluffing in saying that he controls the military.

The real power, they say, is the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fidel Ramos, who joined with Enrile in the early hours of the February revolt.

General Ramos is operating and has left unchanged a military structure designed by Marcos; it allows tight control over the nation's diverse military commands. As the possibility of a confrontation between Enrile and Aquino developed in recent weeks, Ramos acted as a broker to ease the tension, but has since thrown his weight behind Aquino.

Ramos, who has kept a low profile in the dispute, appeared to rebuke Enrile Friday. He said in a television interview that debates within the Aquino government should ``take place in private.''

``We have spent our energy wrangling with each other,'' the general said, stressing the need for ``togetherness, not separation.''

Enrile claimed this week that Ramos, as a military officer, has no right to speak out on political matters. Such statements, according to those who work with Enrile, indicate that the defense minister is upset that Ramos has not followed him.

Still, Enrile may try at least to persuade some elements of the military to oppose the draft constitution in their local areas. The plebiscite, which may be held on Feb. 7, will thus serve as a final test of Enrile's strength.

His attacks on Aquino could spark other political leaders to follow suit. The vice-president and foreign minister, Salvador Laurel, for instance, said Wednesday that the measure in the draft charter granting both him and Aquino their present offices until 1992 should be a separate question in the plebiscite. He would also like voters to be asked if they favor an early presidential election next May.

In addition, Mr. Laurel would like a measure in the plebiscite allowing voters to choose which constitution they prefer if the proposed charter is rejected: the Freedom Constitution, the 1973 Constitution, or the 1935 Constitution.

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