Manila: security and grass-roots political activism

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PHILIPPINE President Corazon Aquino has been in office for more than a year, yet she continues to shy away from organizing a grass-roots political party. It could be a miscalculation. By forming a party, Mrs. Aquino might begin to mobilize a constituency for some of the sensitive tasks she has vowed to accomplish, such as enacting land reform, promoting rural development, and restructuring the military. Without a political organization, Aquino will have to build support for reforms, one by one. To date, Aquino has left the job of organizing to her advisers, especially her brother and former campaign manager, Jos'e Cojuangco Jr., who heads a loosely structured support group called Lakas Ng Bansa, or Power of the Nation. She has rejected Mr. Cojuangco's advice to transform Lakas into a legitimate party.

This decision is in part a consequence of Aquino's distaste for glad-handing and back-room dealing. A reticent woman, she admits that she has never been comfortable with the business of politics.

Since coming to power, Aquino has steered clear of partisan squabbles, preferring to let her advisers battle over the issues and take the heat during crises. The President knows that she is in a unique position. She has been likened to Joan of Arc by the country's highly respected Roman Catholic Archbishop, Jaime Cardinal Sin, who has also called her ``everybody's role model.'' She is regarded with nearly religious awe by millions of her countrymen.

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Popular though Aquino may be, it is still important to consider whether she can continue to ``live by prayers and govern by miracles,'' as one of her leading critics, Blas Ople, recently asked.

Perhaps not. The ratification recently of a new Philippine constitution, while widely seen as an important victory for Aquino, will lead, paradoxically, to a diminution of her power. The new charter vests a 24-seat Senate and 250-seat House of Representatives with the authority to write the laws of the land. The President's ability to make decrees formally ends when Congress convenes six weeks after national elections are held May 11.

Aquino's political honeymoon will surely end as the Congress gets down to business, no matter how many of the candidates she has endorsed are voted into office. If she is serious about reform, she will have to dirty her hands and bargain like all politicians. Enacting land reform will put her at odds with thousands of influential property owners: disarming rural warlords and their private armies will challenge a deeply entrenched structure of privilege in the countryside; purging renegades from the military will test the loyalty of rank and file soldiers; strengthening right-to-strike laws will risk alienating businessmen on whom plans for economic recovery depend.

Aquino's government will also have to cope with an escalating communist insurgency and a lingering struggle in the south over the issue of Muslim autonomy. The result could be paralysis.

Seen in this light, Aquino's skittish attitude about organizing a political party seems both proud and naive. Her popularity has carried her a long way, but the most challenging work lies ahead. If she presses on with reforms, the President will surely stir up opposition and lose some of her support - all the more reason to fortify a power base.

The time is long overdue for the formation of a mainstream political party in the Philippines. After 14 stultifying years under Ferdinand Marcos's regime, Filipinos are looking for institutions and leaders they can believe in.

Marcos abused his public trust when he declared martial law in 1972. He established a monolithic one-party system, and proceeded to limit personal freedoms, violate civil rights, and pillage the treasury. An acquiescent majority awakened only after the brutal slaying of Benigno Aquino and the subsequent collapse of the nation's economy. Filipino pride was wounded. In late 1983, after the assassination, an anti-government protester summed up a widespread feeling of helplessness with the comment, ``We are a nation of 54 million cowards and one bull.'' But two years later, Corazon Aquino's campaign for the presidency became the vehicle for a massive expression of popular will. In toppling the dictatorship, a nation repaired its damaged ego.

The spirit of the February 1986 revolt, while still alive, is certain to fade if not harnessed by a centrist political organization. In part, this is because the outpouring of feeling which precipitated the uprising was essentially negative: Aquino's supporters were more articulate in expressing what they were against than what they were for. The revolt was not a ``revolution'' for the simple reason that the participants were not revolutionaries.

Alex Magno, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines, comments that the ``middle sectors'' backing Aquino wanted only to expel the dictator. Beyond that, they only hinted at their aspirations. Magno observes that Benigno and Corazon Aquino were mythologized by a people deprived of the chance to play a meaningful role in politics. It is now Mrs. Aquino's duty to encourage their involvement. Richard Kessler, senior analyst for Philippine-American affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests the President must ``institutionalize people power'' and ``tap the roots of popular participation that made her victory possible.''

By forming a mainstream political party, Aquino could help translate the negative feelings expressed in last year's revolt into a positive force for change. But if she lacks the imagination to do so, she runs the risk of failing in her bid to reform society. This, unfortunately, would play directly into the hands of communist rebels. At present, they are the only major political group in the Philippines that has succeeded in developing an effective grass-roots organization.

Peter Tarr, who recently visited the Philippines, is a free-lance writer specializing in East Asian affairs.

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