Filipino plebiscite: a testing ground. Aquino opponents gauge future by vote

Communist and right-wing leaders in the Philippines were more than just odd bedfellows in pushing for a ``no'' vote to Corazon Aquino's proposed constitution. Both used the run-up to today's plebiscite to flex political muscles for later fights: May elections for the National Assembly, and August races for mayors and governors.

With a ``yes'' victory assumed for the draft charter, and a relatively clean electoral process assured, the plebiscite was used by the extreme right and left as mainly a warm-up exercise. They can measure just how many ``no'' votes they can muster in their respective strongholds, and test vote-getting tactics.

Although it was odd for left and right to oppose the constitution together - even if for different reasons - it was considered by many observers as even more odd that both participated in the plebiscite at all.

The left has boycotted elections in the past, considering them useless in a capitalist society. That cost them dearly last February when Mrs. Aquino appeared to have won a Marcos-doctored presidential election, sparking a military revolt that brought the reformist leader to power. Now the radical left has its own party, Partido ng Bayan (Party of the Nation), claiming it can win 20 percent of the nation's local elections.

The right, namely those politicians now or formerly linked with former President Ferdinand Marcos and who were accustomed to manipulated elections in their favor, say the plebiscite was nothing but a popularity contest for Aquino. The constitution grants her the presidency until June 1992. Leaders of Mr. Marcos's old political party also complain that the constitution would make it difficult for a president to declare martial law.

This left-right joint opposition might have made inroads into a ``yes'' vote if both sides had not been involved in violent incidents in the 10 days before the vote.

Leftist protestors tried to storm the President's Palace Jan. 22. More than a dozen were killed by either marines or communist infiltrators (an official report is due this Friday). And a Jan. 27 mutiny of more than 385 officers and soldiers was suppressed by military leaders. To top it off, Marcos tried but failed to return from exile in Hawaii on Jan. 28.

These events brought out more ``yes'' supporters, who were strongly reminded that once and future foes of Aquino's centrist policies are still around, and that the new constitution was needed more than ever.

``I have been accused of favoring the leftists, while others accused me of siding with rightists. But I am only for you, my beloved countrymen,'' Aquino told a yellow-bannered crowd Saturday.

The margin of approval in Monday's vote was the only question for Aquino. Her aides say she sought the legitimacy and stability that she believes a constitution can provide.

The right wing, which includes ex-Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, claims the revamped Commission on Elections (Comelec) cannot fairly count the vote. Comelec officials say they have dropped more than 1.3 million ``ghost'' voters from the registration rolls - ``voters'' created in the Marcos days.

An election watchdog group, the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), has 150,000 volunteers in about 75 percent of the nation's voting precincts. Namfrel, as in last year's election, plans to come up with its own count. Comelec estimates 80 percent of the nation's 25 million voters will turn out.

The constitution, the nation's fourth since 1935 and considered the longest in the world at 24,000 words, was drafted by 47 Aquino appointees last year.

It is styled after the United States Constitution with the same separation of powers. Unlike previous Filipino charters, it grants more powers to mayors and governors, gives some self-government to minority Muslim and tribal peoples, raises legal hurdles for a president to declare martial law, and allows a president but one six-year term.

Also it tries to encourage a multiparty system and makes it easier to impeach a president. The charter lays out many social and economic goals, including land reform. It calls for a referendum on any treaty allowing the US military bases to remain, and it allows the president to ban nuclear weapons, if they are stored on the bases.

It also clearly designates a presidential successor, something Marcos tried to avoid. If Aquino should die in office, Vice-President Salvador Laurel would succeed her.

The plebisicte might also produce Aquino's own political party, although she has said she does not want to form one. Her ministers, nonetheless, formed a national ``movement,'' called Lakas ng Bansa (Power of the Nation), which was designed to bring together various pro-Aquino political parties to ratify the constitution. It served many of them in preparing for congressional bids, but it could coalesce into an Aquino party.

Many observers expect Aquino to become more assertive after the plebiscite. During last week's mutiny, she changed her usual soft approach.

``I thought we could reconcile all Filipinos. But it is very clear there are some people who do not want to reconcile but to make trouble for us,'' she said.

Of the rebel soldiers, she said: ``I don't want to kill, but I do not want them to kill us.''

She ordered the military to purge its ranks of ``undesirables,'' many of whom are considered linked to Marcos or his allies.

This order will test Aquino's control over the military in coming weeks.

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