Two Daley-like mayors 'hold the fort' in Manila

Pablo Cuneta and Nemesio Yabut, two Filipino mayors, resemble graduates of the Chicago school of politics. They are tough and autocratic. Their Daley-like machines run efficiently, and when election time rolls around, they produce victories for the ruling party in Pasay and Makati, their respective cities in Metro Manila. In last month's parliamentary election, they did it again for the KBL party (the Movement for a New Society). While KBL leaders complained that most city machines let them down , Cuneta and Yabut delivered.

Of course, they had to: The elections in their areas were special. The KBL candidate in Pasay was a man who could not be allowed to lose: Jolly Benitez, one of Imelda Marcos's closest aides.

And in Makati, the opposition candidate was a woman who could not be allowed to win - Aurora Pijuan-Manotoc, invariably known as Au-Au.

A former beauty queen, Au-Au used to be married to Tommy Manotoc, who is now married to Imee Marcos Manotoc, the President's older daughter, and now assemblywoman for the Marcos family's home province of Ilocos Norte.

The situation is embarrassing for the Marcoses on two scores. Under Philippine law, Au-Au is still married to Manotoc. Had Au-Au won her election, there would have been two Mrs. Manotocs in the National Assembly - seated side by side.

Imee's mother denounced Au-Au's candidacy as ''sick.'' In both Makati and Pasay, people said, the order had come ''from on high'' that the right person win.

Mr. Cuneta is a veteran of difficult elections. He has been mayor of Pasay - a strange mix of an area that includes several major hotels, the United States Agency for International Development, and some rather seedy slums - for 33 years. He has a mournful expression, a Howard Cosell hairpiece, and an unorthodox but well-publicized private life: two wives and two families, all of whom the public is told coexist peacefully.

Yabut has run Makati for 13 years. He is trim and, on request, will show scars that are souvenirs of shootouts. Yabut is proud of his tough image. He is, his aides say, the man who cleaned up Makati.

The most famous part of the clean-up took place in one of the capital's plushest hotels, the Makati Intercontinental, just before the declaration of martial law in 1972. There the mayor confronted Delfin Cueto, businessman and alleged gangster.

The two men and their respective bodyguards - Cueto had four, Yabut rarely travels with less - faced off in the lobby. Shots were fired. In the end, Cueto and at least one associate were dead.

Since then, Yabut's aides say, he has mellowed. But he still has plenty of armed men around, and only just survived an ambush a few years ago.

Neither mayor probably expected too much trouble with last month's election. Yabut in particular seemed to have a built-in margin of victory: The National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) estimated that Makati had about 120,000 more voters registered than were qualified. Namfrel suspects the fake voters were organized by Yabut.

Meanwhile, the opposition candidate, Au-Au, was a political novice, one of the Makati bourgeoisie politicized by the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. last August. And she seemed to be fighting not only the KBL, but the hierarchy of the opposition party, the United Nationalist Democratic Organization (UNIDO). Au-Au says that UNIDO gave her little financial support, and even less encouragement. In fact, she suspects that Salvador ''Doy'' Laurel, the UNIDO leader, may have done a deal with Yabut.

But Makati and Pasay were both surprises. Early returns on the evening of May 14 showed close races. In the following days Au-Au took the lead in Makati.

This was despite unorthodox polling day behavior by the two mayors. Early that day, opposition sources say, Mayor Yabut had cast his vote in his local voting center and then ordered all opposition poll-watchers to leave. His officials did the same in the rest of Makati. ''By noon we had lost 60 percent of our poll-watchers,'' says Au-Au.

(One watcher, a laborer named Ernesto Cionelo, was stubborn. He went back to his watcher's post. A few days later he was found shot to death.)

That evening, Mayor Cuneta visited a voting center at a place called Maricaban. People at the center say he brought with him three bodyguards. He reportedly said he had come to check the ventilation. The bodyguards, one opposition poll-watcher said, went around glowering at each of them. The poll-watchers went home. The mayor's men had brought a large cardboard box with them. They said it contained sandwiches; other people felt it contained ballots. Under the new electoral law, officials are not allowed inside voting venters. Namfrel protested the visit. The count was delayed.

Late that night this correspondent and two colleagues visited the mayor at City Hall. He said he had gone to Maricaban because of reports of trouble there. He denied he had brought bodyguards. ''My only bodyguard is my wife,'' he said, indicating an imposing lady. Later, as we left the mayor's office, we had to step over the sleeping bodies of a number of burly, armed men.

As we spoke President Marcos called. The phone call was in Tagalog (an official language), but the President was obviously asking about the progress of the count. Did the President sound pleased with the progress of the count, we asked afterwards. The mayor scowled. ''I didn't hear him laughing.''

We asked whether the mayor knew it was an offense under the new electoral code to enter the voting center. ''Don't talk to me about the electoral code,'' he snapped, ''I don't know anything about it.''

Maricaban is now cited by the President as an example of Namfrel intimidation of election officials.

Cuneta was, however, confident about the election. Though Namfrel showed a tight race, he said Mrs. Marcos's close aide, Benitez, would win by 16,000 votes. His forecast was close: when the final result was announced four days later, Benitez won by 14,000. Opposition leaders claimed fraud, intimidation, and coercion. An aide of the mayor said they are just bad losers.

Mayor Yabut was more relaxed. The vote was being counted in a meeting room in City Hall. Outside the hall sat civilians with staves and nightsticks. The mayor's men said these were ''concerned citizens'' who had come spontaneously to see how the vote was going. The people themselves said they were Barangay Tanod, a sort of police auxiliary, who had been called in by the mayor's men ''to make sure the opposition doesn't try anything.''

Downstairs, the mayor served journalists coffee in his office. He denied that he would ever fix an election: He had his reputation to consider. Besides, he had always been close to the Laurels (the opposition leaders). And, he said, his returns showed that the KBL candidate, Ruperto Gaite, would win by ''plus or minus 3,944 votes.''

His prediction was uncannily accurate. Gaite won by an official margin of 3, 942.

Namfrel claims Au-Au the winner by about 1,000 votes. In the last day of counting Au-Au's lawyers challenged 85 returns sheet. Each sheet - the record of the preliminary tally of votes made at the voting center immediately after the polls closed - contained about 200 votes, more than enough to swing the election either way.

Au-Au's lawyers were told that their copy of the returns had been lost. They suspected that new returns favoring the KBL's Gaite had been substituted for the original returns. The chairman of the Board of Canvassers (counters) overruled the challenge. The votes were counted. Gaite surged into the lead. ''Good luck, '' said the mayor modestly. ''Theft,'' says Au-Au.

Gaite, who would do well in an Edward Grobinson look-alike contest, was proclaimed the winner in the mayor's office at noon on May 18.

Au-Au will appeal, but the process will take years. Meanwhile, Gaite will take his seat in the National Assembly June 30. During the proclamation the mayor stood quietly in a corner. ''The opposition is strong,'' he conceded. ''But we still hold the fort.''

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