Marcos opposition fails to unite. Laurel refuses to run on ticket with Aquino

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos's hopes of reelection were given a major boost Sunday when the opposition failed at the last minute to form a single ticket. At a press conference Sunday originally scheduled to announce a joint opposition ticket, former Sen. Salvador Laurel declared that he would not be Corazon Aquino's vice-presidential running mate after all. Instead, he said, he would file today as the presidential candidate for his own party, the United Nationalist Democratic Organization (UNIDO).

Mr. Laurel said the reason for this sudden turnabout was the last-minute refusal of Mrs. Aquino to run under the UNIDO banner. Aquino, however, told reporters in a separate news conference Sunday that she has been and still is willing to run under a ``grand coalition'' of UNIDO and her own party, Laban (``Struggle''). She said she remains optimistic the opposition will come up with a unified ticket for the election scheduled for next Feb. 7.

Pressure on Laurel is expected to mount over the next few days to retract his decision and join the Aquino ticket. Laurel himself did not rule out categorically the possibility of a joint ticket. At his press conference he said he is keeping his doors open in negotiating with Aquino for a common ticket. And people close to Laurel said that ``nothing is finished'' yet on the candidacy issue.

The chances of persuading Mr. Laurel to run on a joint ticket have always appeared dim. Since breaking with President Marcos in 1980, he had been grooming himself for a presidential bid. But in the last week optimism had grown that he would agree after all to join Aquino, the widow of slain opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.

Several factors led to such optimism:

Pressure on Laurel from Philippine businessmen, who reportedly warned him that if he spoiled this election by splitting the opposition ticket, he would never gain their backing.

The Philippine Roman Catholic Church's support for Mrs. Aquino's candidacy. Jaime Cardinal Sin had acted as an intermediary between Aquino and Laurel.

Hints from Aquino supporters that Aquino would probably be only a transitional president, thus leaving Laurel plenty of time to achieve his ambition.

Laurel's decision Sunday may have been triggered by concern within UNIDO about the party's future. Laurel's senior aides could have few illusions that they would obtain positions of real power in an Aquino government.

There has been little love lost between supporters of the two candidates. Aquino supporters are known to feel that Laurel and his backers are motivated purely by ambition. One senior Aquino backer refers to Laurel and his main advisers -- some of whom are former prominent Marcos supporters -- as ``unprincipled'' and ``sleazy.'' Laurel's lieutenants apparently feel that the Aquino camp is naive and inexperienced.

Moreover, if UNIDO joins with Laban in the present campaign it might lose its status as the dominant opposition party in future elections. Such status brings with it a number of important privileges, such as the right to have official poll-watchers in every precinct.

Veteran politicians say it is almost impossible to win an election without this status.

But if UNIDO was indeed worried about this, as initial reports indicate, their concern would have been premised on a rather pessimistic assumption: that they will lose the next election. Winners do not worry about being dominant opposition party.

For Laurel, the election issue is a matter of pride.

UNIDO has a ``winning capability,'' he told reporters. ``I can sacrifice myself. I can sacrific the presidency. But I cannot sacrifice my party.''

For Aquino, the overriding concern is unity. Initially, she wanted to run party-less because she considers herself a ``candidate of the people,'' some oppositionists say.

Laurel contends that it is not legally possible to run under more than one political party. Aquino says it is.

Homobomo Abaza, an opposition member of Parliament who opposes Laurel's candidacy, says that under the recently approved law calling for early presidential elections, dominant-opposition-party status can be conferred on a political party or coalition. This, he says, shows that Aquino and Laurel can carry a coalition banner.

Marites Danguilan-Vitug contributed to this report from Manila.

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