US treads delicate line as Marcos opposition grows

How is Washington coping with the current state of political uncertainty in the Philippines? ''We're obviously following the situation very closely'' is the cautious comment of one State Department official.

Although there is ample speculation these days as to exactly when and how it will happen, government power in the Philippines one day will be transferred from President Ferdinand Marcos to other hands. Mr. Marcos has said he intends to run for reelection in 1987 and may do so if his current, much-discussed health problems do not prevent it.

In the meantime, it appears to some who monitor US-Philippine relations closely that Washington has stepped up the frequency and visibility of its contacts with opposition leaders. Just last week, for instance, two prominent opposition leaders were in Washington on separate visits to the United States and spoke with State Department and National Security Council officials.

The first, Liberal Party President Eva Estrada Kalaw won the largest number of votes of anyone elected to the Philippine National Assembly (parliament) last May.

The other was Agapito (Butz) Aquino, brother of opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr., who was shot in August 1983 by military escorts at Manila International Airport.

''We find them very receptive to us lately,'' notes Mrs. Kalaw, who is technically still under house arrest in the Philippines on 1980 charges of involvement in an assassination attempt against Marcos.

She has been in the United States both for health reasons and to talk in Los Angeles with Jovito Salonga, who intends to return to the Philippines soon.

Mr. Salonga is the leader of another faction of her party, which boycotted last spring's parliamentary elections and which Kalaw now hopes to bring back into the party fold.

A State Department official confirms that in both Washington and the Philippines the US maintains an ''open-door policy,'' talking with all ''legitimate'' elements of the opposition. It has no contact, he adds, with the New People's Army, the growing communist insurgency that has been posing a considerable challenge to government troops in recent months.

The communists are reportedly located in all 73 provinces, but most active in the less populated areas such as Mindanao.

Still, some analysts stress that in addition to keeping in touch with highly visible national leaders, there is also a need to be in touch with officials at lower levels who often have considerable regional power and in many ways hold the key to the nation's future.

''Economic and political power in the Philippines is still very bound up with family and regional alliances to a degree Americans find hard to believe,'' notes Peter W. Stanley, a historian who has written three books on the Philippines and is now with the Ford Foundation.

Just how orderly the eventual transition of power from President Marcos will be is of great concern to both Filipinos and Washington.

Under the Constitution, if the President is incapacitated or dies, the speaker of the National Assembly temporarily moves into the top job. He has 60 days in which to call an election. This is the optimistic scenario which Washington and most Filipinos clearly prefer. And the acting chief of the armed forces, Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, recently assured Filipino business leaders that the military would uphold the constitutional process if Mr. Marcos were incapacitated.

It is widely expected that there would be two major candidates, one from Marcos's ruling party and one from the opposition.

''Many think the opposition is much too divided, but I think they're quite capable of getting together on one candidate,'' says Carl Lande, a political scientist with the University of Kansas, who is an expert on Philippine politics and history. ''Sixty days is not very long, but it's long enough.''

Although Marcos would clearly want one of his closest colleagues or a member of his family to succeed him, Mrs. Kalaw, who was a Marcos contemporary at the University of the Philippines and is a cousin of Benigno Aquino, says she does not think Marcos has groomed anyone for the job.

In Kalaw's view, First Lady Imelda Marcos ''will try if she can'' to get the post. ''She's a rather ambitious lady'' - but ''I don't think the public will support her.'' Many Filipinos suspect that Mrs. Marcos had a hand in Senator Aquino's assassination.

But analysts here say they can also see circumstances such as a crisis in the economy or public order in which an orderly transition of power would not take place.

Some Filipinos have speculated that those close to Marcos could conceivably delay announcement of his death until one of his colleagues or a segment of the armed forces had taken firm control of the reins of power.

Actually, some opposition leaders feel the most orderly transition to an opposition government would take place if Marcos ran again in 1987. ''He would be (his own) best rival in the next election,'' insists Mrs. Kalaw. ''The people want a change.''

Because President Marcos has become a symbol of corruption, power, and wealth in the eyes of many Filipinos, his relationship with Washington is intensively watched for every nuance.

That fact has analysts here urging that the US take advantage of every opportunity to hinge its military and economic assistance on democratic reforms and do what it can to objectify its considerable presence at its Philippine military bases.

There have been large demonstrations against the bases in recent days by Filipinos who view them as a magnet for trouble and as a symbol of US complicity with Marcos.

''The enormous reservoir of goodwill that the majority of Filipinos feel for Americans has been draining away with a rapidity one couldn't have predicted,'' says Dr. Stanley.

''I don't see a deep, systemic hostility to the presence of the bases,'' he says, ''but they could become an especially permanent and visible irritant - a flashpoint for a dying regime.''

A State Department spokesman insists that there has been little public criticism of the bases among opposition leaders. He says the bases are adequately protected, in the sense that they are Philippine bases that contain American facilities and that Filipinos have responsibility for their security.

In the meantime, the US and international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund are increasingly inclined to get promises and signs of reform before giving more help.

Although Eva Kalaw, who was first elected to the Philippine Senate in 1965, when it was a bicameral body, terms this the equivalent of ''bribing a country, '' she still says she favors it if it brings change.

Kalaw says US officials asked her during her visit what more the US should be doing. She suggested Washington should do what it can to encourage establishment of a freer press.

When newspaper circulation increases, it grows more restricted, she says. And analysts here say curbs on television coverage are particularly tight.

She also urged that some ''overstaying'' senior military officers loyal to Marcos be encouraged to retire. The armed forces are widely viewed by Filipinos as top-heavy with older officers more interested in maintaining the Marcos regime than in defending the country.

Some loyalists of General Fabian Ver recently have had their commissions extended beyond retirement. Younger officers, whose promotion opportunities are limited, are considered generally more professional and more interested in maintaining the Constitution.

''We want to see the military establishment of the Philippines become a more professional organization, able to discipline itself and do its job,'' says a State Department official.

Some analysts caution that the US should not become so absorbed in the intricacies of the political transition in Manila that it loses sight of that nation's increasing economic and social problems, that play a role in the appeal of the New People's Army.

''We need to keep our eyes on the long-range problems - they're going to be there long after Marcos,'' Dr. Stanley insists.

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