There's a Marcos-Aquino `election' in the US, too

In a makeshift office near downtown Los Angeles, Andrea Luna settles in for another night of campaigning beneath a faded Philippine flag and a wall quilted with political posters and slogans. Before the night is over, she will review figures from a recent fund-raiser, help organize a coming ``prayer vigil,'' and confer with fellow volunteers about the day's news of their candidate -- Corazon (Cory) Aquino, the opposition leader challenging Philippine ruler Ferdinand Marcos in Friday's presidential election.

``This is the first time Marcos has faced a credible candidate,'' the local Filipino organizer says. ``If it's a clean election, she'll win.''

Across town, in a suburb north of the city, Fred Quevedo sinks down in a crushed-velvet couch in his cathedral-ceilinged living room. Dr. Quevedo, a physician, is a member of the recently formed ``Friends of Marcos in America.''

He says, ``I don't see how you really can accomplish anything in the Philippines by changing governments.''

Mrs. Luna and Dr. Quevedo are on opposite sides in an escalating battle to influence the outcome of an event half a world away.

As the bitterly contested campaign in the Philippines enters its final days, Filipino groups in the United States are stepping up some last-minute stumping of their own.

Through rallies, debates, prayer vigils, fund-raising drives, and letter-writing campaigns, Filipinos of all political stripes and interests are trying hard to influence what could be a turning point in the history of their homeland.

But while their immediate aim is to shape the outcome of the presidential election, many Filipinos here are also attempting to influence US policy toward the strategically important Asian nation.

By most accounts, groups opposed to the enduring rule of Mr. Marcos are dominating political activism in the US, as they have in the past.

But the current election has also brought a more-concerted response from Marcos backers. Friends of Marcos in America, a nationwide lobbying group, was formed within the past two months.

Though both sides are far removed from the Philippine electorate, their efforts are more than academic. True, few US-based Filipinos are eligible to vote in the election. They would have to show up in person, and be registered, to do that. But many have been urging friends and relatives, by phone and by flier, to cast ballots for their respective candidates.

Groups opposed to Marcos have been raising funds to help underwrite poll-watchers in the vast archipelago, an effort to try to cut down on ballot tampering.

Perhaps most important, though, is the battle for American public opinion. Here Marcos critics appear to have been making some headway as well. Observers say opposition groups have been effective in influencing congressional attitudes toward the Philippines, as well as in focusing public attention on issues such as the Marcos family's real estate holdings in the US.

``All indications are that Marcos and his people are spending a tremendous amount of money to influence American public opinion, whereas opposition groups, which tend to operate on a shoestring, are doing very well in getting their message across to the media, Congress, and the people,'' says Peter Stanley, a Philippines expert at the Ford Foundation in New York. ``In that sense, they have pulled off quite a coup.''

There are an estimated 1.5 million Filipinos living in the US. Close to half of those reside in California, with roughly equal concentrations in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. And those numbers are growing rapidly. Economic deprivation in the Philippines, coupled with the belief that America is something of a Shangri-La, has helped make the Filipino community the fastest-growing Asian ethnic group in the US.

Most of the new arrivals, however, are not interested in political activism. Instead, they concentrate more on improving their standards of living.

``Many Filipinos have had a surfeit of political activity by the time they arrive here,'' says Sebastian Catarroja, editor of a Los Angeles-based biweekly Filipino newspaper, the California Examiner.

Those who are so inclined, however, take their politics very seriously. They reflect the emotional, factional, brass band-style of politicking characteristic of their homeland. The one factor behind all these divided loyalties is President Marcos himself.

``Either you like him or you don't,'' says Dr. Quevedo.

Among those who don't is Joel Rocamora, director of the Philippine Resource Center in Berkeley, Calif. Mr. Rocamora, who describes himself as a ``progressive nationalist,'' sees the election this week as a ruse designed to legitimize control of the Philippines by Marcos and US interests. ``In my opinion, it is an attempt by Marcos to hold a public relations-type election, to show creditors that he is still the leader,'' he says. ``Unfortunately, I feel Cory Aquino and others in the opposition are being used to legitimize a dictatorship.''

Rocamora has called for a boycott of the election and believes the US should not meddle economically or militarily in Philippine affairs. Generally, though, despite differing long-range goals, most opposition groups back the candidacy of challenger Mrs. Aquino. The largest of these is the Ninoy Aquino Movement (NAM), an international group founded shortly after opposition leader Benigno Aquino was slain in 1983.

For the election, NAM members have been focusing much of their efforts on trying to deter election fraud in the Philippines. They have launched an ``adopt-a-precinct'' program, for instance, aimed at raising enough money to pay for 10 observers at each of the 90,000 polling places in the island nation.

That would amount to about $4.5 million -- something that even NAM organizers say is out of reach. Last week, contributions were coming in at the rate of about $2,000 a day. To offset the impact of the largely government-controlled media in the Philippines, the group has also tried to act as an information conduit for foreign journalists covering the campaign.

English-language Filipino newspapers in the US are led by the Philippine News. With a circulation of 70,000, the San Francisco-based paper is generally considered the largest Filipino-American newspaper in the country.

Alex Esclamado, editor and publisher, has recently placed full-page ads in the paper urging Filipino-Americans to journey to their homeland and serve as poll watchers in the election. Over the years, his paper has also run many stories critical of Marcos's war record.

On the other hand, the Filipino American, in nearby Sacramento, is considered probably one of the leading pro-Marcos publications. The 10,000-circulation fortnightly is published by San Francisco physician Leonilo Malabed, who also is an advisor to the Friends of Marcos in America.

Whatever the outcome of the election, Filipinos in the US will likely have plenty to continue debating. That's because few advocates on either side predict widespread unrest -- or worse -- if their candidate loses.

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