Of popsicles, cockfights, and political campaigns in the Philippines

It's 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and President Ferdinand Marcos's party is losing out to a barrio fiesta. We are in Dalandang, about 19 miles southeast of Davao City in what ruling party Assemblyman Nonoy Garcia calls a communist-infested area. Hence our security: A mixed force of Marines, constabulary, and the local 100 troops are securing the area for the government rally. Dalandang is Mr. Garcia's second stop on today's campaign schedule. At the first stop, he inaugurated a new market building. Here he's due to present a basketball trophy and give a speech. The crowd around the small wooden grandstand is sparse. But about 50 yards further off the road, several hundred people are celebrating the feast day of the Santo Nino -- the holy child.

Nonoy Garcia is in his mid 40s, stocky, and slow-talking. He's a rising star in the Philippines' ruling party, the Movement for a New Society. Currently, he is assistant majority floor leader in the National Assembly and deputy minister of justice. His aides say he could become the minister of justice if Mr. Marcos is reelected.

People have come to the Roman Catholic fiesta from outlying districts. The Santo Nino is the patron of Cebu, the island in the central Philippines that was the original home of many of Mindanao's present settlers. They have come here by motorized tricycle, horse cart, or water-buffalo sled. In a muddy clearing under tall coconut trees there is a cockfighting area fenced off by palm fronds and a stall where another form of gambling -- sort of a heads-and-tails game using coins -- is taking place. Scattered around are food-and-drink stalls: fried bananas, soft drinks, beer, and tuba, a liquor made from coconut sap.

A campaign aide frowns at the small crowd waiting for Nonoy. ``Go and tell some of those people to come over here,'' he tells a constabulary noncommissioned officer. The trooper dutifully goes over to the fiesta; no one takes any notice. Finally, someone tells the gamblers and cockfighters to stop playing while the rally goes on.

After the basketball game, the speeches start. First Garcia enumerates his various government positions in a low-key fashion. Most of the speech is in Cebuano, the local dialect, but the political jargon is in English. No one looks excited, and probably few understand.

Mayor Lopez gets some response from the crowd. He sings to the onlookers and gets them to join in the chorus. He tells jokes. Both speakers stress the communist threat. Opposition candidate Corazon Aquino, they say, is supported by ``the reds.'' And they warn that she will sell out Mindanao (there have been reports in the government-controlled press that Mrs. Aquino has promised the Muslims on the island an independent Mindanao). They also stress Aquino's lack of experience.

Back at the fiesta, people are waiting for the cockfights to begin. Some have gone home already. So far, no one has given the impression that they speak English. Finally one man by a food stall calls me over.

``Why are you here?'' he asks abruptly. To cover the campaign. ``His campaign? Why?'' He gestures in the direction of Garcia and the mayor. ``We are very discontented people,'' he says in his stilted English.

Another man joins in the conversation and changes the subject. ``You know what they call us? The masa. You know what that means?''

Masa is the term used by the underground Communist Party of the Philippines to describe its mass base among the peasantry or workers.

Shortly afterwards a younger man, a student at the local university, starts up a conversation. As we talk, it emerges that he is less sympathetic to the underground. But, he concedes, they are popular here.

``All the youth around here are organized [by the underground],'' he says. Nearly all of them are unemployed, he adds. There is less communist military activity in the area these days because of the presence of Marines, he says. But the political organization is still strong, and the underground still collects taxes regularly.

``Every month they ask for rice or some old clothes or a few pesos,'' he says. ``If you give, they say thank you. If you don't they say OK.''

At the rally, the speeches are winding up with an address by the local barrio captain. She reminds the listeners of the speakers' promises. The mayor has said he will try to get electricity for the barrio. The speakers have also said they'll pour a concrete floor for the basketball court. And Garcia has talked about putting asphalt on the local road. ```Now you must help the mayor and the assemblyman reelect the President,'' she says. After all, she adds, the President ``will surely win.'' Some in the crowd clap politely, then rush for the free popsicles.

``The essence of the KBL campaign lies in targeting rural areas,'' one of the assemblyman's aides explains later. People in the city are issue-oriented. ``But in the countryside, where the leaders will go, the people will surely follow.''

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