Philippine opposition juggles big pre-election problems. Scrambles to unite behind a candidate, wants later vote

The Philippine opposition has its hands full in preparing for the snap presidential election proposed for Jan. 17. On the one hand, the opposition is locked in a tug-of-war with President Ferdinand Marcos's ruling party over the terms and the constitutionality of the election. On the other hand, it is struggling to unite behind a common candidate.

Corazon Aquino, widow of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. and a reluctant politician, is emerging as the person most likely to unite the fragmented opposition for a serious challenge to the Marcos political machine.

Leaders of several opposition groups have already endorsed Mrs. Aquino. One, the ``convenor group,'' unanimously agreed Monday to support her. The group -- led by elder statesman and former Sen. Lorenzo Tanada, prominent businessman and political activist Jaime Ongpin, and Mrs. Aquino -- was formed last year to pick a common candidate in case Mr. Marcos called for an early presidential election (his six-year term is up in 1987).

But Mrs. Aquino has kept quiet since Marcos's call Nov. 3 for an early election. Earlier, she had said she would run for president only if a snap election were called and if her supporters could deliver a petition bearing 1 million signatures asking her to run. The second condition has yet to be met.

Another likely opposition candidate, and the one most determined to run, is former Sen. Salvador Laurel, leader of the United Nationalist Democratic Organization, an umbrella organization for 12 opposition groups. He is, however, believed to be less capable than Mrs. Aquino of unifying the opposition. Some oppositionists say Mr. Laurel is a possible running mate for Mrs. Aquino.

Meanwhile, debate in parliament continues over Marcos's call for elections. The opposition is seeking concessions to ensure a fair election. Opposition demands include: Marcos's resignation; accreditation of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections, a citizens' election-watchdog group; revamping of the government Commission on Elections, allegedly packed with Marcos loyalists; abolition of all preventive-detention orders by Marcos; equal access to the news media; and barring the military from being used for election purposes.

The opposition is also pushing for a later election date, to give it more time to work for electoral safeguards and prepare and organize a nationwide campaign.

Oppositionists called ``unconstitutional'' the plan Marcos announced Friday, in which he would resign ``only when the election is held and after the winner is proclaimed and qualified as president.'' In a letter dated Nov. 11 and addressed to parliament, Marcos said he would resign when the new president took office. (Under the Constitution, special presidential elections can be called only if the president vacates the office through resignation, impeachment, death, or incapacity.)

Jovito Salonga, leader of the opposition Liberal Party, said Marcos's announcement of an intention to resign does not create the required vacancy.

Parliament is currently finishing work on a new election code that will apply to the proposed election.

Jose Concepcion, chairman of the citizens' election-watchdog group, favors holding the special presidential election with the local elections scheduled for May 1986 -- ``to minimize costs and to provide safeguards,'' he said.

Meanwhile, parliament is set to deliberate on Marcos's special bill calling for an election. The bill, which was submitted to parliament Monday, is expected to be approved soon. Marcos's party, the New Society Movement, holds the majority of seats in parliament.

Observers say the opposition holds a weak bargaining position because it is in the minority, and at the same time it cannot afford to boycott the election because most Filipinos see an election as the way to unseat Marcos.

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