After a week of debate and confusion, the Philippine opposition has drawn up a plan designed to force President Ferdinand Marcos out of office. Not all opposition aides are confident the plan will work, but most see it as the political center's last chance in a rapidly polarizing society. The campaign will start Sunday in Manila with a mass meeting dubbed ``The Triumph of the Nation.'' After an open-air mass, opposition leader Corazon Aquino is expected to outline a program of nationwide nonviolent action. Her aides also say that she will be proclaimed victor of the Feb. 7 election.
Government ministers have made it clear that they would regard any victory proclamation by Mrs. Aquino as a serious provocation. And Aquino said in a statement last night that an early proclamation of a Marcos victory by the National Assembly would do nothing to defuse the current political crisis.
Opposition organizers hope that Sunday's demonstration will draw hundreds of thousands. The rally will be followed by similar demonstrations throughout the country and will culminate in a nationwide strike. This will be followed by a selective boycott of ``Marcos-crony-owned businesses,'' as Aquino organizers put it.
The opposition hopes the campaign will trigger the Marcos government's unraveling and bring the economy to a standstill. It wants government workers to join the rallies and hopes that the mass actions will undermine the military's commitment to President Marcos.
The main reason for the delay in formulating a program, sources close to Aquino say, has been her own unwillingness to embark on a course of action that may cost lives. Another reason was the opposition's lack of contingency plans for anything but electoral victory. There was an almost unanimous belief among top opposition leaders that their landslide would offset any electoral fraud.
But the growing strength of the political left, coupled with the almost tangible tension that has prevailed in Manila and, reportedly, in other parts of the country, seem to have forced the Aquino camp into action.
Moderates fear that the radical left is quickly capitalizing on the disillusionment engendered by the election. ``They are already recruiting our people,'' says one of Aquino's close advisers. The Aquino camp has explicitly told leftist organizations to stay away from their rallies, and steps will be taken to prevent the left from infiltrating demonstrations, according to Emgidio Tanjuatco, an opposition member of the National Assembly and cousin of Mrs. Aquino.
Campaign-related violence continues. Another Aquino campaign worker, Arsenio Cainglet, was shot and killed yesterday in Aquino's home province of Tarlac -- the 17th assassination of an opposition figure since election day. His son is reported missing. One participant in a meeting called Thursday by Aquino to consult local leaders in Manila says he was struck by the consistent emphasis in small group discussion on the need for self-defense. Aquino and her lieutenants have publicly committed themselves to nonviolent struggle.
But campaign workers are beginning to worry that prolonged inactivity will propel some of their followers to violence.
``Retaliation will be harder to control as the days go by,'' Mr. Tanjuatco said.
Aquino's supporters say the support of the Roman Catholic Church of the Philippines will be crucial in the coming campaign. The Catholic Bishops Conference is expected to issue a statement on the elections on Friday. Some churchmen, including the usually cautious Jaime Cardinal Sin of Manila, are known to favor a call for civil disobedience. Senior Aquino advisers say they expect, at the very least, a ``strong condemnation'' of the election.
The church could provide practical as well as moral support, Tanjuatco says. ``Right now we can broadcast our messages through one radio station and three daily newspapers. But the government can shut these down. We're helpless unless we can make use of the pulpit.''
The attitude of the military will be equally important. Reformist officers are drawing further away from the government and closer to the opposition. But Marcos loyalists still control the fire power. Nevertheless, the opposition hopes that the military rank and file will refuse to use force against demonstrators.
Tanjuatco is optimistic that the campaign will provoke the disintegration of the Marcos government. It could come in a matter of months, he feels. Other Aquino advisers are less sanguine but feel they have to act now to try to retain the initiative over the left. Not all seem convinced that they can prevail. But they see no alternative.
``If this doesn't work,'' says Ramon Mitra, a ranking opposition member of parliament, ``you'll have the choice of joining the ruling party, joining the communists, or going abroad.''