Polarized Philippines. Defections on far left and right heighten Aquino's need to hold on to politcal center
Manila — This week marks the end of the political honeymoon for Corazon Aquino. After nine months in power, the President of the Philippines rules over a nation suddenly more polarized. Leaders on both the left and right have broken ranks with her in the past few days.
On the right, the ouster of Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile by Mrs. Aquino and his replacement by Rafael Ileto, after weeks of tolerating Mr. Enrile's badgering criticisms and support of some military coup plotters, creates a stronger conservative opposition with a strong spokesman - Enrile.
On the left, the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines has ended its friendly tone toward Aquino by denouncing her proposed constitution. For her part, Aquino last week set a deadline of Nov. 30 for the communists to sign a cease-fire agreement, having lost patience with their delays. And she is expected to fire or demote several left-leaning ministers in the next couple of days.
The left in general was emboldened to distance itself from Aquino last Thursday when more than 200,000 Filipinos joined a funeral march for slain labor leader Rolando Olalia. To them, Mr. Olalia has become a martyr (like Aquino's assassinated husband), and their ability to hold large street demonstrations nearly matches Aquino's ability to do the same last February.
The situation leaves some observers doubting if Aquino can keep her broad spectrum of supporters together.
``We are still serious about national reconciliation,'' counters Aquino legal adviser Rene Saguisag. At an outdoor Roman Catholic mass on Sunday, just two hours after firing Enrile, Aquino told a crowd of 10,000 worshipers: ``Our country has a lot of problems, so we should continue to be united, because this is what the Lord God wants for our country.''
At the least, Aquino will have to hold the center political ground. But that requires solid backing of the dominant Catholic Church and the military. Both show a new politicization within their leadership.
The church's bishops last week strongly endorsed the proposed constitution - tying their reputation to Aquino in a nation that espouses separation of church and state. ``Separation is something negative,'' says Jaime Cardinal Sin, the nation's church leader. ``We should collaborate for the common good.''
And leaders of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, despite Enrile's ouster, show a stronger willingness to speak out more often on political issues ever since their role in toppling Ferdinand Marcos. Last Friday, for instance, Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos met with Aquino and talked about the need for a Cabinet revamp.
Oddly, both the radical left and the right have tacitly formed a tactical alliance with each other against the proposed constitution. The draft charter, which will be voted on in a national plebiscite Feb. 2, would ensure Aquino the presidency until 1992.
It appears likely that the constitution will be approved. But even then Aquino must contend with elections for a new Congress in May. She has tried to avoid forming her own political party, but her aides insist that she will be forced to do so. The threat is too great, they say, that Congress might be controlled by either a coalition of well-monied conservative parties or a coalition of well-organized leftist parties.
The gravity of the nation's new polarization was perhaps best seen on the faces of the Aquino Cabinet Sunday morning.
According to several of those present, ministers were handed a blank piece of paper as they came into the meeting and asked to write in longhand a ``courtesy resignation.''
Although a Cabinet shuffle had been expected to occur sometime in the next few months, many ministers' faces ``went pale,'' says Finance Minister Jaime Ongpin, who is expected to be one of those reappointed.
Enrile had not been invited to the meeting. In fact, General Ramos briefed the Cabinet about events the day before. Ramos, a close colleague of Enrile from their mutual defection from Marcos in February, reported that he talked to Enrile twice on Saturday about suspicions that the latter was involved in a military challenge to Aquino.
Several truckloads of troops had been reported on the move in the province of Laguana. They were suspected of being on their way to the closed National Assembly building outside Manila, where they would have defended a reconvening of the old Marcos-dominated parliament. Ramos reported that more than 100 former legislative allies of Marcos met Saturday to complete the plan, which called for them to reinstall the 1973 Constitution, ``undeclare'' Marcos the winner of the Feb. 7 presidential election, and possibly declare Aquino the President.
The plan seemed more farcical than effective and never left the rumor or planning stage. Ramos, after confronting Enrile about his possible support of his group, issued an order to all service commanders not to obey any order from the Ministry of Defense (that is, Enrile).
Aquino, who got little sleep Saturday night, called an emergency Cabinet meeting at 8 a.m. Sunday and reportedly told her Cabinet that ``the situation [with Enrile] had become intolerable.'' She asked for the resignations, and then met with Enrile at 2 p.m. to ask for his resignation.
``It was the best discussion we ever had,'' Aquino reportedly said. In a television address, she said: ``We need a fresh start.''