The trouble with the Philippines, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile told reporters a few days ago, is that everyone likes to play chess. It was his way to explain the intrigue, uncertainty, and ambiguity touched off by the veteran politician's criticisms of President Corazon Aquino's young government.
Will he lead a coup d''etat? Will he campaign against a coming plebiscite on a draft constitution? Will he run for president? Will he resign or be fired? Manila headlines left the impression that a checkmate of Mrs. Aquino was close at hand, motivated by Mr. Enrile's alleged political ambitions.
Without revealing to reporters what he really wants, Enrile's public provocations, such as saying Aquino lost her mandate by throwing out the 1973 Constitution, leave most political kibitzers waiting for a substantial move on his part.
But according to some close to Enrile and aides to Aquino, Enrile's strategy is mainly an act of self-preservation.
``Trapped by certain circumstances, he has decided that the best defense is a good offense,'' an Aquino aide says.
And a top official in the Defense Ministry loyal to Aquino states: ``I feel sorry for the man. He doesn't have much room for maneuver.''
They cite four reasons for his confrontational speeches:
1. Because of his February defection to Aquino, Enrile's life has allegedly been in danger from supporters of former President Ferdinand Marcos, and his security is usually tight. By leading an anticommunist crusade against Aquino's cease-fire talks with insurgents, Enrile has gained the backing of so-called Marcos loyalists, who see him as a possible stalking horse for Mr. Marcos's return. This reduces the threat against Enrile.
And last Sunday, Enrile's anticommunist rally in Manila -- the fourth such rally he has held around the country -- drew a large number of Marcos loyalists who chanted ``down with Cory'' in response to Enrile's ``down with communism.''
2. Enrile faces possible investigations by two Aquino-created panels for alleged official corruption and human rights violations during the time he served as Marcos's defense minister and martial law administrator. By rallying strong anticommunist sentiment in Aquino's main support group, the middle class, Enrile is in a better position to extract a promise from Aquino not to prosecute him once he leaves her government.
Up to now, the two panels have spared him because of his membership in the Aquino coalition and his role in the February revolt. But a prominent Roman Catholic priest who has been a close friend of Enrile for more than two decades concedes that Enrile may be vulnerable to any probe by the Presidential Commission on Good Government, which is tracking down the ``ill gotten'' wealth of Marcos and his former associates. Perhaps to take the offensive, Enrile said Sunday that Aquino needs to curb alleged corruption in her government.
3. Enrile will likely be eased from the Cabinet in a government shuffle before the May legislative elections, a step planned by Aquino soon after she took power, her aides say. By stumping for strong anticommunist policies, he can easily build a political base not directly opposed to Aquino, who remains highly popular. This might help him win a Senate seat in the May elections and offer an honorable way to leave his high post.
Enrile ran for the Senate in 1969 and lost, which nonetheless did not force him to give up his post as defense minister. If he makes a bid in 1987, he may rely on the revived, right-wing Nacionalista Party, which is now run by close associate Rene Cayetano.
4. Distrusted by most close Aquino aides for his role under Marcos, the Harvard-educated Enrile has been given a diminished role in the affairs of top government, even in the selection of new generals. He was the only top-level Marcos aide to keep his job. Having risked his life to oppose Marcos in February, he now finds himself in the same predicament he faced in the latter years of the Marcos regime -- a defense minister politically eclipsed and largely out of the chain of command.
By speaking out publicly against Aquino's policies, Enrile has forced her to listen to his suggestions. More Aquino-Enrile ``peace talks,'' such as the first one last week, are planned.
Besides these tactical moves, Enrile appears genuinely concerned about Aquino's strategy to end a 17-year communist insurgency. Although that concern has wavered in the past, his most damaging confrontation of Aquino was to ask her directly what she will do with the Communist Party if it agrees to a cease-fire. Aquino's only response was to restate that she would impose a deadline for the communists to agree to an unconditional, 30-day cease-fire. She also promised, as a result of talking with Enrile, to remove some Aquino-appointed governors and mayors negligent in their duties.
Enrile's real impact so far has been to rattle potential foreign investors about political stability and to upset United States officials who, despite agreement with some of Enrile's anticommunist statements, support Aquino's transition to a constitutional democracy.
A spinoff of the power dance is the rise in prominence of another hero from the February revolt, Gen. Fidel Ramos, the armed forces chief of staff.
General Ramos has acted as an effective Enrile-Aquino go-between, and his quiet professionalism has led many Filipino observers and some US officials to contend that he is the only leader in the country whose statesmanship echoes Aquino's style. Some speculate that after he retires, he might follow her as president in 1992. Ramos's closeness to Aquino, and the fact that he and Aquino -- not Enrile -- have appointed the new top military officers, makes it almost impossible for Enrile to pull off another military defection like last February's.
``Whoever plans to stage a coup is foolish,'' considering the popularity of Aquino, says retired Maj. Gen. Luis Villareal, director general of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency.
Aquino, meanwhile, appears unperturbed by Enrile, preferring to exercise her normal leadership style of tolerance and reconciliation. In one way, her defense minister's outspokenness may help her: The more Marcos's allies and supporters look to Enrile for leadership, the less influence Marcos retains here.
And as long as Enrile is in the Cabinet, Aquino's generally moderate-liberal government has a handle on the political right wing. Despite this, some Aquino ministers and others are calling for Enrile's ouster.
``My problem is that I do not have a queen,'' Enrile told reporters, referring again to the Filipino passion for chess. ``I'm only playing with bishops and knights. But that's OK. I like playing with bishops and knights.''