Marcos aides chip away at power of Philippines' ruling party and leader

The Philippines' monolithic ruling party is showing signs of erosion. On Monday President Ferdinand Marcos fired his foreign minister, Arturo Tolentino, and on Tuesday Labor Minister Blas Ople resigned after being reprimanded by Mr. Marcos for saying that the political system of the government depended upon patronage.

In firing Tolentino and reprimanding Mr. Ople, Marcos is signaling that he is back in the saddle and ready to crack the whip on maverick party members who criticized -- or even ridiculed -- him during his latest bout of illness.

But the more the public perceives Marcos as ill, the more assertive have become the members of the ruling New Society Movement (KBL) who see themselves as Marcos's replacement.

In firing Mr. Tolentino, Marcos said the foreign minister has publicly taken positions that are ``incompatible with those of the government and myself.'' Even before Tolentino was appointed foreign minister last year, he had taken an independent stance from the KBL. But what triggered the firing was Tolentino's criticism of Marcos's recent move in appointing and recalling certain ambassadors. Tolentino had reportedly said the moves did not fall under the President's power.

Tolentino is one of a few KBL members who have been actively dissociating themselves from the party since Marcos's popularity started to quickly deteriorate after the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. in August 1983. His sacking was therefore hardly a surprise, not the least to Tolentino himself. He had been needling Marcos, almost provoking the President's action.

It was Tolentino's distance from the official party line that considerably helped him win a seat in the National Assembly (parliament) during the election last May. He was the only KBL candidate who won a seat in the city of Manila. And even after being appointed foreign minister, Tolentino continued criticizing Marcos's policies, especially the way the President frequently used his power to make laws outside the parliament and order the arrest and detention of suspected subversives.

When Marcos fired Tolentino, he also sent a warning letter to Labor Minister Ople. Ople, who is expected to run in the presidential elections in 1987, resigned the next day. Marcos had not acted on Ople's resignation.

Ever since Marcos took ill last November, a number of KBL members have been maneuvering for position, trying to discreetly project themselves as potential presidential candidates in the post-Marcos era. Some have even tried to project themselves as having been victims of, rather than participants in, the degeneracy of the Marcos administration.

Tolentino, however, vehemently denies he has presidential ambitions. He says he is merely interested in continuing his law practice.

Although Marcos appears to have regained some physical strength, his recovery has not squelched questions about his long-term health. It has become evident over the past few years that whatever his ailment is, it is of the recurring type, and that each time he fell ill, he took longer to bounce back. Each time he never quite recovered his earlier strength.

It is not only KBL members who are showing more assertiveness. The Supreme Court, whose powers have been dimmed under Marcos, has also shown signs of stirring up. Recent court decisions have embarrassed the government -- most recently its orders to release several alleged subversives detained under Marcos's Preventive Detention Action. Because a PDA is issued by Marcos, the court ruling asserted judicial supremacy over the President's powers.

A number of cases before the Supreme Court could bring it into direct conflict with the government. One major issue is the court's authority over decisions of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), some of which have been questioned before the court by opposition politicians. With local elections due next January, the government would not welcome the Supreme Court's looking over Comelec's shoulder.

A confrontation between the government and the Supreme Court could have serious repercussions. If the government refuses to acknowledge the ultimate authority of the Supreme Court, it will spell the end of the elaborate legalism that Marcos has cultivated around his rule.

Meanwhile, Marcos's recovery will dampen, at least for the time being, the intense rivalries among presidential hopefuls within the ruling KBL. But there is little doubt who has emerged as the front-runner.

That is none other than Imelda Marcos, the President's powerful and ambitious wife. Two other principal contenders, Ople and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, seem to have stepped back from the maneuvers.

In a recent interview with this correspondent, Ople said, ``The President has become more solicitous and caring for Mrs. Marcos.''

Ople admits that among the KBL leaders, Mrs. Marcos's ``political star shines the brightest.''

In the absence of a strong alternative candidate either from the opposition or from a breakaway KBL group, few would be willing to oppose her. While Mrs. Marcos is not generally popular, as evidenced by the KBL's failure in her home turf, Metro Manila, during the last election, the opposition appears to underestimate her and will probably not back a common candidate to oppose her. In that situation, many KBL members believe she would have a good chance of winning and would be willing to throw their lot with her.

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