Ominous rumblings in the Philippines

THOSE of us who warned that Corazon Aquino's accession to power was not a solution to the Philippines' problems, merely the beginning of a new chapter, can take little comfort from the current nervousness and political uncertainty in Manila. Mrs. Aquino is adrift on a lonely sea, and the political sharks that would destroy her are many.

Principal among them is her defense minister, Juan Ponce Enrile.

We should be quite clear what Mr. Enrile represents. The image is confused by the fact that he swung his support and his troops to Aquino on the eve of former President Marcos's downfall. Given the way things turned out, it was an astute move, for Enrile survived the eclipse of the Marcos clique, of which he had been part, and emerged -- incredibly -- in his same defense minister's role in the new Aquino Cabinet.

But Enrile is not exactly your knight on a white horse. He represents the old and discredited order in the Philippines, the order of corruption and personal enrichment in office. He was President Marcos's defense minister for 16 years. One does not survive in such a role, in such a regime, by promoting a bold campaign for democracy and human rights. It was Enrile, for example, who held ultimate responsibility for the capture of Aquino's husband, Benigno Aquino, as he returned home in 1983.

It is a good bet that Mrs. Aquino does not trust him. That would be wise on her part. But at the time of her accession, he controlled troops, and he had played a critical role in the ouster of Mr. Marcos.

In the months she has been in office, President Aquino has been replacing key military officers. Whether Enrile would get the Army's support in a coup attempt against her is doubtful.

The critical role would be played by Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, chief of staff of the armed forces. General Ramos is a career officer, considered to be an effective one. If he held his troops aloof from any coup attempt by Enrile, the coup would likely fail.

It is perhaps on the political level that Aquino is more vulnerable to undermining by Enrile, and indeed by others who are not especially enchanted with her performance to date.

She is being portrayed by her critics as soft on communism, a feeling genuinely shared by many military men who have spent years fighting communist insurgents.

She has issued various offers to the communists to lay down their arms and negotiate. So far these peace moves have not had dramatic effect. This has made the President particularly vulnerable to criticism from Enrile.

Her critics, including some in the press, also charge her with a lack of forcefulness and lack of progress in solving the country's severe economic problems.

In the face of this, Aquino draws on what she considers to be still enormous public support, as well as the backing of the Roman Catholic Church.

In recent days, she has been trying to contain Enrile. The apparent strategy is to keep him in the Cabinet at least until a new constitution will be put to a plebiscite early next year.

If voters approve the constitution, there would be local and congressional elections later, but not a presidential election. Aquino's supporters contend that she is in for six years, on grounds she won the election last February. Other presidential aspirants see political mileage in defeating the new constitution, opening the way for an earlier tilt at the presidency.

It is a challenging time for Mrs. Aquino. But nobody should doubt that a takeover by Enrile would plunge the Philippines back into terrible disorder.

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