The arrest and temporary detention last week of a Filipino opposition group official sent shudders through the opposition, and raised concern that a crackdown on antigovernment dissent may be in the works.
But a crackdown at this time might present President Ferdinand Marcos with more problems than ever. It could spur on massive demonstrations, create revolt within Mr. Marcos's own party, and make foreign creditors reluctant to bring in money to ease the Philippines' economic crisis.
The arrest occurred as the recently elected opposition members of the National Assembly (parliament) were preparing to go on the offensive against the 19-year-old Marcos government. The incident was undoubtedly intended to make the opposition a little bit more cautious in attacking the government.
Fr. Jose Dizon, a Roman Catholic priest who is deputy secretary-general of the Nationalist Alliance for Peace, Justice, and Freedom, was arrested on June 28 following an early morning raid on the group's newly established headquarters. Police said subversive literature was found at the headquarters. Although Dizon was subsequently released without having charges filed against him, the incident worried the opposition.
Days before the arrest, Marcos had warned that conditions in the Philippines were now similar to those that led to the imposition of martial law in 1972, when thousands of his opponents were detained. Many feared it signaled an end to the climate of relative freedom the government critics have been enjoying since late last year.
A veritable ''Prague spring'' descended on the Philippines. A wave of antigovernment sentiment and fiery rallies swept the country following the Aug. 21 assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., the charismatic opposition leader who was Marcos's political archrival.
Public outrage ultimately carried a poorly organized and virtually resourceless opposition to impressive victories in the May 14 parliamentary elections. The opposition, which before had only 16 seats in the assembly, won more than 70 of the 183 contested seats in the incoming assembly, which opens on July 23.
The opposition parties' strong showing against the massive resources and extensive organization of Marcos's ruling New Society Movement (known by its Tagalog initials KBL), was widely interpreted as a government defeat.
The euphoric opposition assemblymen-elect immediately started planning to drive home their advantage. They announced they would initiate impeachment proceedings against Marcos. While the move would be defeated by KBL supporters, it would prevent Mr. Marcos from dissolving the assembly. Opposition members also served notice that they want a repeal of the President's power to legislate by decree without recourse to the assembly, and an accounting of the country's $ 25.6 billion foreign debt.
As for Marcos's decree-making power, the opposition camp seems to have found a new ally in a group of disgruntled KBL and independent assemblymen who have said they will also press for the review of the controversial presidential power provided for in the Constitution.
The ''group of 30,'' led by Manuel Collantes, KBL assemblyman and former deputy foreign minister, said the assembly should scrutinize the actions of government officials, particularly economic policymakers. Mr. Collantes said his group will ''feel completely free to check and criticize the party hierarchy before and during party caucus and to contribute to independent research and thinking to the party consensus.''
But a greater cause for concern to Marcos is the plan of the more aggressive opposition leaders to back their assembly initiatives with mass demonstration, using the prevailing economic crisis as a focal point.
The severe crisis was caused mainly by the flight of capital and loss of business confidence that followed the unrest caused by Aquino's assassination. The effects of the crisis are being harshly felt by ordinary Filipinos, who see no relief in sight. If the opposition were able to harness Filipinos' resentment against the wealthy members of the government, it could seriously threaten Marcos's rule.
However, most observers agree that Fr. Dizon's arrest last week does not portend a massive crackdown. The left-leaning Nationalist Alliance is not at the forefront of the opposition. It advocated a boycott of the assembly elections and was subsequently discredited by the strong showing of opposition parties and by the heavy voter turnout. This, plus its slightly radical and militant image, makes it a convenient organization by which to set an example.
Opposition lawyer Rene Saguisag thus described Fr. Dizon's arrest as ''a warning from Marcos that people had better stop demonstrating against him.''
Several factors mitigate against any further coercive action against the opposition. The government is particularly concerned about its image both domestically and internationally. Massive arrests might inspire another backlash that could scare away foreign creditors and investors, desperately needed in the short term to overcome the chronic shortage in foreign exchange and to get the economy back on its feet.
The Philippines is currently involved in tough negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and 350 creditor banks to obtain a rescheduling of some of its exisiting loans and to get $3 billion in new loans.
Marcos must also contend with a less compliant party. Many in the KBL, including Collantes's group, feel they were elected to the assembly despite, rather than because of, their KBL membership. After Aquino's murder, they felt an increase in their personal authority and an ability to demand more from Marcos in return for their continued support.
The ''rebel'' and independent KBL members are unlikely to welcome a return to the days when Marcos's authority was unquestioned. Marcos would have to be careful that any move he took to reassert his authority did not cause a revolt within his own party.
It is more likely that Fr. Dizon's arrest is somewhat of a bluff by Marcos, intended to frighten the opposition and make them tread a little more warily. Marcos may also be testing the water for a gradual tightening of control, carefully watching the reaction to the arrest - not only in the opposition also within his own party and in the country at large.