Philippine opposition fights uphill battle, but scores some points

The Philippine opposition is engaged in an uphill parliamentary battle for government reforms, but is not giving up. It is outnumbered by President Ferdinand Marcos's New Society Movement in the National Assembly. But it has made a few assaults since its strong showing in last spring's assembly elections - and has scored some points, if not outright victories.

Its first major legislative assault on the government came on Sept. 13, when it moved for a no-confidence vote on Prime Minister Cesar Virata and the entire Cabinet. Though the measure did not pass, it hinted at the new tenor of the assembly.

The opposition recently flexed its muscles again, with greater success. After one person was killed and more than 55 injured in anti-Marcos demonstrations Sept. 27, the assembly unanimously passed a resolution condemning police violence.

The assembly also set up a 23-man commission to investigate allegations of police brutality in containing the protest. This is parliament's first probe of police and military actions against opposition groups since Mr. Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, which he officially lifted in 1981.

The opposition has found limited use for the parliament as a forum for its ideas, and it is exploiting its propaganda value. Daily it delivers speeches fiercely debating government policies.

It now has its strongest voice in government since martial rule. Marcos then shut the doors of Congress, detained his opponents, and replaced the legislature with the assembly in 1978. With rising antigovernment feelings, propelled by the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. last year and the deepening economic crisis, the opposition was able to garner 59 of the 183 seats in the recent election, a substantial increase from the old parliament's 13.

Since the regular session opened on July 23, the opposition has shown consistent unity in its moves. It voted against the election of Mr. Virata as prime minister, pushed for the restoration of the daily privilege hour (wherein any member of parliament can speak up on any issue of national importance), and fought for impeachment rules which will allow any citizen to file a complaint against President Marcos and top government officials backed up by one-fifth vote of the assembly.

In all these, it was outvoted. But signs are that Marcos is giving in on some issues, specifically on his lawmaking power. Observers say he wants to appease the opposition lest too many of its members join the growing protest movement in the ''parliament of the streets.''

The opposition has found strong allies in leading members of the Cabinet who have openly advocated a compromise on Amendment 6, the President's authority to issue decrees. They want its exercise limited to cases of emergency. The Constitution provides that the President can use this power also when the assembly is not in session and is ''unable to act.''

Foreign Minister Arturo Tolentino said last month: ''If Amendment 6 were out of the Constitution, we could revive in some way whatever confidence has been lost in our government and the stability of its policies.'' Mr. Tolentino criticized the presidential practice of issuing decrees when the assembly is in recess.

Prime Minister Virata, in a recent talk before businessmen, called for a review of the Constitution ''because some amendments are not harmonious with the others.''

Other Cabinet members who say they are keeping an ''open mind'' about Amendment 6 are Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, Justice Minister Estelito Mendoza, Labor Minister Blas Ople, and Political Affairs Minister Leonardo Perez.

Observers say some Cabinet members see the decreemaking issue as an opportunity to distance themselves from the President and unpopular presidential powers. These KBL members have their sights set on their political future, whether in the coming presidential elections in 1987 or in the post-Marcos era.

For Marcos, the assembly serves as a safety valve. He wants to contain dissent within the parliament's halls where it is manageable and peaceful.

Outside the parliament, the government is besieged with a mounting insurgency problem. Defense Minister Enrile said the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military arm, the New People's Army, can match government forces within the next three years if the military does not beef up its antidissident efforts.

A Western diplomat here assessed the NPA can already challenge the military in some provinces.

(Testifying before the House subcommittee on foreign affairs in Washington Thursday, US Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage said that communist insurgents could take power in the Philippines within the next decade unless Marcos institutes basic reforms.)

The difficulty of the moderate opposition in the assembly, in contrast to the Communists, lies partly in its diverse membership. All of them come from at least five political parties. No leader has emerged strong enough to tighten up their organization and consolidate their legislative program. Whatever unity they have now is merely functional, in fact, even tenuous.

And it is believed that the effectiveness of the assembly depends on the attitude of the national leadership. Tolentino recently said, ''If the administration remains closed and acts as if it can solve the country's problems on its own, all efforts at collective thinking and work to meet our economic crisis will not prosper.''

Moreover, others say, substantial reforms can only come with a change in leadership. President Marcos, who was reported to be ailing, now appears to be healthy and has just visited southern provinces damaged by a recent typhoon. He has said he hopes to rule for many more years, indicating an intention to run in the presidential race in 1987.

The opposition is now organizing nationwide for local elections in 1986, the results of which will largely determine the outcome of the presidential elections.

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