The Philippines braces for a power vacuum

The Philippines is facing a double leadership crisis. President Ferdinand Marcos, who has dominated the country for the last two decades, is ailing; at the same time the legal political opposition is unable to come up with a strong alternative.

Over the past 20 years President Marcos has carefully built a highly centralized political and military structure with just one person at its apex: himself. Now he is ill, perhaps fatally so; he needs to find a successor who will protect his family and his fortunes -- and, he apparently hopes, his name. He also needs to find a way of transferring power to his chosen successor.

Both are daunting problems: The regime is under fire from all quarters, at home and abroad. And, like most authoritarian rulers, he has created a vacuum around him -- there seems to be no one who possesses both the confidence of the President and the capability to take over from him.

The people most interested in Western-style democracy, the political middle ground, are facing equally serious problems. They are the least organized, least united, and least coherent part of the political spectrum. And they face strong challenges from both the right and the left.

On the right is the Marcos regime. The President may be ailing, but his machine is still far stronger than its opponents. Marcos supporters are worried about their future and uncertain which option would best protect their interests. But they have plenty of muscle, both physical and financial, with which to back any option they choose. And they have the advantage of incumbency.

The revolutionary left -- the Communist Party, its armed wing, the New People's Army, and its political organization, the National Democratic Front -- is the success story of martial law, which was in place from September 1972 to January 1981.

In his Oct. 21 foreign-policy debate with Walter Mondale, President Reagan said ``the alternative'' to Marcos was ``a large communist movement to take over the Philippines.'' In fact, compared with the Philippine government, the left is still weak -- but it is well organized and intelligently led. Its influence in the countryside is substantial. Its following among the urban middle class -- which has been turned off by the infighting of traditional opposition groups and attracted by the organization and dedication of the underground -- is growing. And unlike the right or the center, the left knows exactly where it is going: By 1990 it plans to play a major, if not dominant role in Philippine politics, Communist Party organizers say. One way it hopes to do this is by ``mass defection'' of populations in major cities in the Philippines, probably starting with Davao.

If it wants to assert itself in Philippine politics, the middle ground has to dismantle much of the military, political, and economic institutions of the Marcos era and defuse the leftist movement. It also has to get itself organized.

Presidential rhetoric portrayed the declaration of martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, as a reaction against the corruption, chaos, and violence of the ``old society.''

Marcos's ``New Society'' would, to quote one of his main publicists, be one of ``national discipline, national unity, and national self-determination.'' It would rid the Philippines of pork-barrel politics, private armies, and shoot-outs in the streets of the capital. It would also eliminate the small but vigorous communist underground movement.

But in fact Marcos did not eliminate these phenomena; he refined them.

Instead of a multiplicity of local political bosses doling out patronage in their areas, Marcos created a single source of patronage -- the Movement for a New Society (Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, or KBL, in Tagalog). And at the top of the political pyramid, the pork barrel was replaced by ``crony capitalism'' -- a coterie of close friends and political allies of the President (perhaps business associates, too) who benefited greatly from his patronage.

Even private armies were modernized. Probably the largest such force today, that of coconut magnate Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., is reportedly well-armed, well-officered -- he is said to employ a number of retired generals -- and Israeli-trained.

The Philippine armed forces were also transformed. They grew enormously in numbers, budget, and political influence. Like the civilian government, the armed forces became a tightly centralized organization with one man at the apex -- Gen. Fabian Ver, the President's relative, bodyguard, and confidant.

General Ver, however, was not a rival to the President, but an extension of him. He is on leave from his position as chief of staff while standing trial for alleged complicity in the murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. In fact, Ver retains most of his influence in the military and with Marcos.

Until August 1983 the New Society looked sound. The United States concluded that the Marcos regime was stable -- something that successive administrations in Washington have found irresistibly attractive. Reports of military abuses or the growth of the Communist Party were dismissed by the Marcos government and the US Embassy as biased or exaggerated.

Then with the assassination of Benigno Aquino, who was shot on arrival at Manila airport on Aug. 21, 1983, the regime began to unravel. The first thing to go was its credibility. Most Filipinos concluded that the government had planned the killing. The US began to show signs of concern and reserve; President Reagan called off plans to visit the Philippines three months after the Aquino killing. The political ferment brought a long-simmering economic crisis to the surface. Then a third crisis began to take its toll on the administration -- the collapse of Marcos's health.

The nature of the President's illness is a closely guarded secret. Close associates and foreign diplomats believe Marcos was seriously ill when Aquino returned and that the assassination was the byproduct of a succession crisis.

US complacency ended with the assassination. US officials in Washington and Manila made known the administration's desire to see a thorough investigation of the killing and honest parliamentary elections in May 1984.

The findings of the civilian panel that investigated the killing were unexpectedly thorough. Three generals, including Ver, Luther Custodio, and Prospero Olivas, were among the 26 accused of conspiracy. The US never tried to hide its sympathy for the board, and at one point was accused by government supporters of interferring in its work.

The May 1984 elections were also a surprise. Though certainly not clean and honest, they were at least cleaner than their immediate predecessors, and the opposition did better than expected.

One group that made a big difference in the polls was the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel). Backed by senior churchmen and funded by business, Namfrel privately acknowledges US assistance in obtaining what it felt to be crucial changes in the electoral code.

Washington meanwhile is in a dilemma. President Reagan is said to be sympathetic toward Marcos and the 1950s anticommunist ideals he seems to incarnate. Other conservative members of the Reagan administration are worried about the Soviet buildup in Southeast Asia -- especially the Soviet bases in Vietnam, directly across from the US bases in the Philippines. Too abrasive a US attitude toward the Marcos government, these officials are said to fear, will lead to the abrupt closure of the bases.

Reagan's personal sympathies and the conservatives' strategic fears, some close observers of US policy say, may lead to an increasingly hesitant and tentative approach to the Philippine crisis.

President Marcos's health went through another crisis late last year but has since improved. Cabinet ministers say he now functions for up to six hours a day but cannot leave his palace because of a variety of serious allergies.

While some ministers stoutly maintain that the President is on the mend, others admit to being nervous about the future. ``The government is living from day to day,'' said one Cabinet minister who did not want to be named.

In theory at least there is an established formula for ensuring an orderly succession, should the President die or be incapacitated in office: The National Assembly speaker assumes office temporarily and calls for an election to be held within 60 days.

Some politicians are hopeful that this would work. Most other observers are skeptical and envisage a more dramatic succession formula. These include:

The President stays the course through local elections in 1986 and runs again in 1987. He chooses as a running mate someone -- most probably his wife -- who can take over if his health fails. The main question about this scenario is whether the President's health will hold two more years.

He resigns, calls a snap election, and engineers the election of his wife, Imelda, or another trusted lieutenant as his successor. Marcos regularly denies he will call an early election.

There are several advantages for him in these formulas. First, he is the only person who could persuade the KBL to accept his wife as a candidate: Most KBL leaders expect Mrs. Marcos to make a play for power sooner or later, but they say her support will erode rapidly once Marcos disappears from the scene. Second, he is viewed as just about the only person who could bring off a KBL victory -- and even he would be hard pressed.

The approach also has major disadvantages -- in particular the fact that none of the President's close associates can imagine him quitting. The feeble state of the economy would also be a problem.

During last May's National Assembly elections, the government allegedly pumped massive amounts of money into the economy -- to give it a falsely healthy glow -- and then tried to pump it out again afterward. A repeat operation would be hard to achieve, particularly as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would be watching closely for signs of it.

The President obtains a constitutional amendment permitting early and separate elections for a vice-president. This would allow Marcos to have his chosen successor in place, should anything happen. But a constitutional amendment would be difficult to obtain, and if they suspected that an amendment was designed solely to benefit Mrs. Marcos, some KBL leaders with presidential ambitions -- men like Labor Minister Blas Ople, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, or Foreign Minister Arturo Tolentino -- might be lukewarm in their support.

Some variant of a coup occurs: declaration of a state of emergency because of an alleged plot, or redeclaration of martial law because of civil disturbance. Once again the main beneficiary would probably be Mrs. Marcos and the main executors the generals close to Ver.

Opposition groups speak of their fear of this. These fears, however, also appear to be shared by some advisers close to Jaime Cardinal Sin of Manila, as well as members of the staff of Defense Minister Enrile and the armed forces acting chief of staff, Gen. Fidel Ramos.

The moderate opposition is intellectually aware of the problems ahead but politically unprepared for them. A coup would put most of the middle-ground opposition out of business, if not behind bars. Under these circumstances the focal point of middle-ground opposition -- if there were any -- would probably be Cardinal Sin or Aquino's widow, Corazon.

Elections, clean or dirty, early or late, offer the best prospects for the opposition. But the essential precondition for the victory of an opposition figure running for president -- agreement on a single candidate -- so far eludes them.

The political spectrum has broadened and fragmented since martial law, and more particularly since the Aquino assassination. Since the assassination, efforts have been made to pull together a unified opposition platform. The ``declaration of unity'' issued in December advocates drafting a new constitution, reviewing economic agreements with foreign countries, legalizing the Communist Party, and closing foreign military bases. (The agreement on Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base, among the largest US outposts abroad, is due to expire in 1991.) The efforts to unify have not been totally successful.

The main representative of traditional, pre-martial-law politics is Salvador Laurel. He has been tepid toward the search for a single candidate and has made it clear he will run in any presidential election. He also opposes removing US bases.

The Pilipino Democratic Party (PDP) is a post-martial-law development. The PDP, which is mildly left-of-center, has expressed opposition to US bases, at least temporarily. At least two PDP leaders are actively in the running -- Aquilino Pimentel and Ramon Mitra.

Nationalist groups -- actively opposed to US bases and multinational corporations, and deeply resentful of what they perceive as active US support for the Marcos regime over the years -- are growing in strength. They oppose the IMF-World Bank economic recovery program, which they consider another example of US ``economic imperialism.'' They form the backbone of the ``parliament of the streets.'' Some nationalists support the underground, others have their doubts. One leader, Lorenzo Tanada, is a member of the three-person ``convenors' group'' which is trying to streamline the selection of a candidate.

Then come the groups and individuals politicized by the Aquino assassination. These include Aquino's younger brother, ``Butz,'' and his widow, Cory. He is obviously tempted by the presidency. She has been active in the convenors' group but will probably come under pressure from church and business circles to run as the elections get closer.

A number of prominent businessmen have emerged as active members of the opposition. On the whole they have not shown presidential interests.

Subduing personal ambitions and reconciling the sharply divergent ends of the legal political spectrum is a tough proposition. If the opposition succeeds, it still has time to win back the initiative from the left. The underground is strong, but it is still vulnerable to the excitement of an election: Its call last year for a boycott of the National Assembly elections was ignored in most parts of the country.

To maintain the initiative, however, the middle ground has to offer stark alternatives to the Marcos years -- dramatic moves against poverty, or reduction of the controversial military presence in the countryside.

If the moderate opposition does not do this, or if they do not pull themselves together, or if the right launches a coup, the underground will have every reason to feel confident.

Over the next three years the Communist Party plans to triple its armed fighters to around 45,000, cadres say. It may also become more involved in above-ground politics -- a plan is afoot for a ``popular democratic coalition'' to coordinate radical opposition to Marcos. If things keep going the way they are now, the left only has to be patient and avoid making a fatal mistake. 1. Revolutionary Cuba

Toward accommodation or conflict? 2. Soviet leadership in transition

What impact on superpower relations? 3. Iran-Iraq war

What role for the US in Persian Gulf? 4. Budget deficit, trade, and the dollar

The economics of foreign policy 5. The Philippines

What future for democracy? 6. Population growth

Critical North-South issue? 7. Future of the Atlantic alliance

Unity in diversity? 8. Intelligence operations

How undercover diplomacy works

This weekly eight-part series is keyed to the Foreign Policy Association's ``Great Decisions'' program, which is designed to help Americans become better informed about critical foreign policy issues. The `Great Decisions '85' course book prepared by the Foreign Policy Association may be obtained from the FPA office, 205 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016. Payment must accompany orders for single copies ($6 each) and should include $1.00 for postage and handling.

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