PHILIPPINE President Corazon Aquino has once again proved herself a tenacious, deft political leader. Now more than ever Mrs. Aquino can be said to command the high ground in Philippine affairs, politically and institutionally. She took a bold, yet shrewd, step in calling for the resignation of her entire Cabinet. For the Philippine people, that act symbolized her fairness and independence from the extremes of the political left or right. She stayed above the fray. By accepting the resignation of her former defense minister, Juan Ponce Enrile, she widened her influence over the military - consolidating support from professional military officers on the right, including the Army's chief of staff, Fidel Ramos. It was that backing from within the military that enabled her to escape a possible coup attempt from dissident officers over the weekend.
And by imposing tough new deadlines on the communist insurgents, she has forced rebels to show their hand as to whether they support national reconciliation - and whether their words of reform match their deeds.
What needs to be kept in clear focus is that after years of Marcos rule and communist insurgency, most Filipinos now abhor the violent extremes of left and right. Politically, under Ferdinand Marcos there was great uncertainty. Loyalties ebbed and flowed, depending on who was perceived to be in the good graces of the Marcos family. Now, under Aquino, the Philippines is attempting to build a neutral democratic institutional framework that rewards loyalty based on service to the nation rather than an individual. It was this new institutional framework that Mr. Enrile sought to circumvent by pursuing his own ambitions.
Aquino still faces formidable challenges, to her government and her personal position. She must now work to ensure that the new constitution is ratified in a public referendum Feb. 2. She should continue reform of the Philippine military, a process aided by the selection of her new defense minister, Rafael Ileto, a counterinsurgency expert and diplomat. And Aquino should ensure that the government's hand in the countryside is balanced. If there is a renewal of combat, the military must be prevented from overkill, which would alienate ordinary Filipinos. She must press for genuine change - including land reform.
For now, Aquino appears to have won a much firmer hand - and once again proved her mettle.