The Philippines heads into a storm

What promises to be a chaotic week in the Philippines began Monday with a nationwide strike of passenger jeepneys - the most common and cheapest form of transport in the city.

The immediate cause of the strike was a rise in gasoline prices averaging 13 percent, announced over the weekend. The real target, though, was the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan package announced last week by President Ferdinand Marcos.

Strike organizers portrayed the IMF as American-dominated, and the $630 million package as a bailout for a financially and politically bankrupt regime.

The organizers - radical labor unions and activist groups, with a sprinkling of more moderate organizations - claim the strike was a success in several major cities. In Manila, however, it seemed largely a failure.

The mixed results of the protests will undoubtedly come as a boost to the Marcos government, less than a day after President Reagan's assertion that a ''friendly rightist government,'' albeit flawed, was preferable to a communist takeover.

Mr. Reagan's words, spoken Sunday during the final debate with presidential rival Walter Mondale, will also strengthen those inside the government, particularly the military, who are urging Mr. Marcos to stand firm in the face of pressure to dismiss his armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver.

It is widely expected that General Ver, one of Marcos's closest aides, will be named as a conspirator in the murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino when the board investigating the killing publishes its report, in all probability this week.

The board report is long overdue - a fact that adds to tension in the capital. The delay is believed to be due to a split among the five board members over whether to name General Ver. In all likelihood the board will produce a main report, written by four of the members and recommending Ver's indictment, and a second, dissenting opinion by board chairwoman, Justice Corazon Juliano Agrava.

The strike had the avowed aim of bringing Manila to a halt. Its organizers promised barricades along the main thoroughfares of the capital and sympathy strikes by factory workers. The sympathy strikes failed to materialize, and the barricades - in fact, human chains - quickly disintegrated under police pressure.

Strike leaders have designated Tuesday a ''people's strike.'' They clearly hope to extend their protest actions, although, on the basis on Monday's showing , their ability to do so appears limited. But for the left at least, Monday's strike was practice for bigger things to come. It was a way of testing their organizational skills and giving their supporters experience in large-scale actions.

Radical opponents of President Marcos will undoubtedly analyze the results of Monday's action carefully. It will probably not be long before they try again. The typhoon-like rise in taxes and prices hitting Filipinos has created a new wave of discontent that could force an already-beleaguered Marcos government to prepare for the worst.

The new discontent punctured an air of optimism generated by Marcos last week when he said on nationwide television, ''Our recovery efforts can proceed in earnest.''

But Filipinos are not crowing about the IMF loan, a major hurdle in the year-long negotiations with the IMF for the much-needed $630 million standby credit. Many remain pessimistic over their future and instead see the next few months as bleaker than ever.

Even if the IMF money starts to flow in early next year, as expected, the amount will merely be used to build up foreign reserves and help correct the country's tottering international credit standing.

The murder of Aquino triggered a debt crisis in the Philippines late last year. Foreign private banks hesitated to grant loans due to the uncertain political future.

So far, the country is on its fifth moratorium, unable to pay part of its large $26 billion foreign debt.

A restructuring plan has been approved by the advisory committee of the 480 international creditor banks so that payments on loans will be deferred to the end of 1985 or early 1986.

Still, this does not bring any new money to propel the economic engine. Negotiations for $3.3 billion in fresh loans are ongoing. This amount will be used to finance imports of raw materials and spare parts needed by the manufacturing sector.

But local businessmen and bankers say that while all foreign banks would give their nod to a debt resched-uling, they doubt if many would agree to provide additional loans to the Philippines.

If the Philippines gets such loans at all, they will most likely come in trickles while banks monitor government performance. One economist here said: ''The question of credibility, the issue of consistency, of trustworthiness, stand at the very center of debt negotiations and of the country's survival.''

A foreign banker pointed out that the release of the money is tied to economic performance. ''It is going to be painful for the Philippine government but we have to keep them on a short leash.''

Negotiating difficulties started in December last year when foreign exchange reserves were overstated by $660 million. The campaign period for the May legislative elections saw a lull in negotiations, and money supply ballooned as a result of heavy government spending.

For fear of losing in the May polls, the government also avoided taking severe economic measures recommended by the IMF. This caused delays in the IMF's approval of the standby credit.

The 18-month ''economic stabilization program'' calls for new taxes aimed at raising government revenues and an upward float of the peso's exchange rate, among others. The official rate has risen from 18 to 19 pesos to the dollar.

These measures have fueled a general rise in commodity prices and have dampened credit, employment, building of government infrastruture projects, trade, and other domestic economic activities.

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