Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos surprised observers Wednesday by nominating Arturo Tolentino, the ruling party's leading dissident, as his vice-presidential running mate. Mr. Tolentino surprised observers even more by accepting the nomination. Until his nomination, Tolentino was on the record as questioning the legality of the forthcoming election and criticizing the inflationary effect it would have on the economy.
In recent months he has called on Mr. Marcos to stand down, and in March he was fired for persistent insubordination from his post of foreign affairs minister.
But despite his formerly independent stance, he is unlikely to emerge as a rival to President Marcos. At 75, he is seven years older than the President and is not thought to have either a separate political or financial power-base.
But Tolentino's nomination, in true Marcos fashion, serves to throw his adversaries -- as well as the United States -- off-balance. Tolentino has often been described by US officials as the most credible Filipino leader supporting the government. This credibility, however, depended largely on his independence -- something which he may surrendered Wednesday.
Three weeks ago, during the debate in the Batasang Pambansa (National Assembly) on the new electoral code, Tolentino -- the country's best-known constitutional lawyer -- strongly attacked the bill. He spoke of its ``constitutional infirmities'' and said that the early election ``could set back our national economy.'' Tolentino said that he saw no reason for the early election and no constitutional explanation for the President's announcement that, if defeated, he would resign 10 days after the election.
To adopt the election bill, Tolentino said, would be to embark on the ``dangerous course of constitutional adventurism.''
On Tuesday he reportedly explained to reporters that his misgivings over the bill could be calmed by a ruling from the Supreme Court. Until then he had been scheduled to appear in Supreme Court hearings to examine the 10 petitions that have so far been filed by legal bodies questioning the bill's legality. (Only two of the Supreme Court's 14 justices are considered independent-minded. In the past six months, one of the independent justices, Claudio Teehankee, has twice been passed over for t he chief justice job).
A canny politician, Tolentino kept away from the other candidates of the ruling KBL party (Kilusang Bagong Li-punan, or Movement for a New Society) in Manila during the May 1984 National Assembly elections. As a result, he was the only KBL assemblyman elected in the capital. He also reportedly had contacts with anti-Marcos businessmen who quietly funded a small group of progovernment and antigovernment candidates in an effort to foster an independent bloc in the assembly. Tolentino is thought to have re ceived a contribution from the group.
His chances of nomination had generally been discounted by political observers, including senior KBL officials. Labor Minister Blas Ople and businessman Eduardo Cojuangco had seemed stronger contenders. And until Wednesday's KBL convention, first lady Imelda Marcos was also in the running.
Two factors may possibly have influenced the President's choice. First, the evident disarray in the opposition this week gave Mr. Marcos more latitude of action: He may have felt more at liberty to make the daring choice of Tolentino. (Opposition candidates Corazon Aquino and Salvador Laurel didn't announce their 11th-hour decision to run together until after the President announced his decision.) Second, Marcos seems to have agreed with other strategists in his party that the time has come to abandon t he tradition of picking one member of a presidential ticket from the north of the country and the other from the south.
Tolentino is an ethnic Tagalog from Luzon. Marcos is also from Luzon -- from the far northern province of Ilocos Norte. KBL leaders have recently been arguing that, given the erosion of the President's popularity elesewhere in the country, the party should concentrate on Marcos' homeland in the ``solid north'' and on vote-rich central Luzon. Marcos may be relying on Tolentino to do this and to cause further problems for the opposition in Manila, which KBL leaders until recently had been tempted to write
One of the main proponents of the Luzon strategy was Ople. He and others pointed out that metropolitan Manila, the southern Tagalog region, and central Luzon together account for almost 40 percent of the electorate. Therefore, government strategists argued, the ruling party should concentrate its efforts on Luzon and choose a Tagalog as vice-president.
Mr. Ople had himself in mind for the job; Mr. Tolentino, however, won out.