Aquino's boosted power. Galvanizing effect of coming vote exposes foes

Corazon Aquino and her ministers are holding their breath - while trying to hold things together - until Monday's vote on a new constitution for the Philippines. Threats to President Aquino's rule, focusing on the proposed charter, have escalated from both the radical left and the former political kingpins on the right, including ousted President Ferdinand Marcos.

Both sides fear that a solid ``yes'' vote may knock the wind out of their political strength and stabilize Aquino's ``moderate'' government.

Mr. Marcos's aborted attempt to return home Wednesday from exile in Hawaii, as well as this week's futile rebellion in Manila by some 400 soldiers, indicates a last-minute desperation to forestall the Feb. 2 plebiscite.

Aquino supporters, who by and large back the draft constitution, will test their own strength on Saturday in a large rally at a Manila park. The recent threats are expected to guarantee not only a sizable crowd but also an adequate margin on the vote tally.

Leftists, meanwhile, backed by the Communist Party of the Philippines, will display their political muscle today in a funeral march for protesters killed Jan. 22 near the presidential palace. An official probe has yet to lay blame for the deaths of more than 12 demonstrators.

Military leaders, who have joined with Aquino, warn that Marcos ``loyalists'' and other right-wing politicians may still plan to destabilize the government by Monday. One example was last week's release of a taped telephone conversation allegedly revealing an Aquino attempt to influence constitution's drafters to soften a measure threatening United States bases in the Philippines.

The plebiscite's galvanizing effect has exposed Aquino's foes on the left and right, isolating them and allowing her to build up the political middle. The same process is likely to occur during elections for Congress scheduled for May 11 and for local officials on Aug. 24.

But no sooner may she win Monday's vote of confidence than she will face two major dilemmas of her own making: the scheduled Feb. 9 opening of talks with Muslim guerrilla leader Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front; and the choice of whether to extend the 60-day cease-fire with communist guerrillas beyond the Feb. 7 deadline.

The military strongly recommends no cease-fire extension, claiming it only helps the communists. That same anticommunist sentiment was evident among the rebel troops who tried to take over key military and television installations Tuesday.

Most of the rebels were captured quickly, but the holdout of about 190 soldiers in the Channel 7 complex until their surrender Thursday revealed an unseen hand by right-wing politicians, top military brass say.

The officers leading the rebellion were low level and generally incompetent, these military officials say, and seemed to have been easily manipulated by some political leaders into believing that communist guerrillas were trying to take over the Manila installations.

The ``master plan,'' these military leaders say, was to test Aquino's resolve, and thus prepare for the next move this weekend. The President promised swift retribution for the errant soldiers. The US stated its support for Aquino.

The surrender took two days of persuasion by military officers and several tear-gas volleys. Fears of violence against their brothers in arms prompted a group of ``reformist'' officers to request Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos to avoid a direct attack.

In the end, after being bombarded with any number of reasons to quit, the rebel leader in Channel 7 surrendered his forces because a classmate from the Philippines Military Academy asked him to give up, an aide to General Ramos says.

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