The Philippine opposition yesterday welcomed President Ferdinand Marcos's unexpected announcement that he would call for an early presidential election next January, but demanded that he first step down. ``Marcos must resign first,'' said Liberal Party leader Jovito Salonga. The sentiment was echoed by many of Marcos's opponents, including Agapito Aquino, brother of slain opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.; former Senator Lorenzo Taada; and member of parliament Cecilia Munoz-Palma.
But the President is not likely to resign from his post. He is instead proposing a decree for inclusion in a new election code now being deliberated in the National Assembly (parliament). According to the decree, he would remain in office ``to prevent a hiatus'' in government from the time he calls special elections to the time the winning candidate is proclaimed. (Under the Philippine Constitution, presidential elections can be called only if the presidential post is vacated -- through the President's resignation, death, or impeachment.)
Mr. Marcos said in an interview on ABC television Sunday that ``if all these childish claims to popularity on both sides have to be settled, I think we'd better settle it by calling an election right now. . . .'' He said he will meet with his party, the New Society Movement, this week to consult on election plans.
Mr. Salonga said the opposition will seek a ``unified stand'' on what step to take should Marcos insist on staying in office. A boycott, however, is ``not being considered,'' he added.
Some quarters in the opposition expressed skepticism about the possibility of an early presidential election. Luis Villafuerte, Marcos's former trade minister and now an opposition member of parliament, said the President ``may backtrack because of the constitutional question, since there is no way for him to run without changing the Constitution.''
Agapito Aquino said, ``Marcos may just be testing the waters to find out how organized the opposition is, but he's stacking the cards in his favor.''
Deputy Prime Minister Jose Rono, on the other hand, said that the opposition provoked Marcos into considering early elections. ``We're just calling the bluff of the opposition.''
Marcos's announcement Sunday came two weeks after he said on ABC's ``Nightline'' that a snap presidential election has been rejected by the people because there would be nothing to gain. Presidential elections were to be held in 1987 and local elections in 1986.
The unexpected presidential announcement is forcing the hand of Corazon (Cory) Aquino, widow of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr.
Mrs. Aquino said last month that she would run for president only in case of snap elections and if the draft-Cory-Aquino-for-President movement collects 1 million signatures. So far, the movement, organized last month, has collected some 200,000 signatures, according to its officers.
Mrs. Aquino has refused to comment on Marcos's latest announcement, but Ms. Munoz-Palma (who met with her yesterday) said Mrs. Aquino is still awaiting the fulfillment of the two conditions she has set for her candidacy.
``Everything is uncertain as of yet,'' Mrs. Aquino reportedly said.
Also at issue in this latest development is the leadership succession -- a key concern of the United States government as well as of the Philippine opposition. Marcos reportedly said he did not want to include a vice-presidential candidate in the election. The Philippines has been without a vice-president and successor-designate since the imposition of martial law in 1972.
``If limited to the presidency alone, we'll be faced with the same problem,'' said political activist Teofisto Guingona.
Many Filipinos cite as reasons for President Marcos's apparent change of heart his declining health and US pressure for early elections.