Aquino's charter wins big. Vote strengthens hand of Filipino leader, but poses new challenges

The strong vote for a new Constitution in the Philippines will not bring smooth sailing for Corazon Aquino, but it does alter the rules of the game. This is the assessment of Western diplomats after yesterday's referendum.

``She's no longer out on a limb and exposed with a `provisional' government,'' an American official says.

The charter's endorsement strengthens Mrs. Aquino's hand in dealing with several groups: communist and Muslim rebels, the right-wing opposition, foreign creditors, an unwieldy military and bureaucracy, and a congress to be elected and seated by July.

By early Tuesday morning, Manila time, with more than 30 percent of the vote reported by a private election watchdog group, a ``yes'' vote was winning by a more than 3-to-1 margin. Official tallies will take several days.

But the Constitution opens potentially divisive challenges in fulfilling its promises and dictates. The most immediate include land reform, military restructuring, and deadlines for recovering the ``ill gotten'' wealth of Ferdinand Marcos and his associates.

Generally, Aquino retains both executive and legislative powers until a congress convenes, allowing her to alter any laws held over from the Marcos era. But the new charter places legal constraints on such matters as judicial appointments.

Yesterday's voting process was considered the most honest and peaceful in several decades, with only minor cases of violence and cheating. The turnout was heavy and the mood more relaxed than during Marcos-run elections. A ``yes'' vote was commonly seen as a vote for Aquino as much as for the Constitution, a perception Aquino encouraged.

There was little doubt that the charter would be endorsed, but the President nonetheless rallied various pro-Aquino parties into a new political umbrella group called Lakas ng Bansa (Power of the Nation) to push for ``yes'' votes.

In what could be a major decision, Aquino must soon decide whether Lakas will continue as her political party for May 11 congressional elections. Candidates must declare by March 24.

Many of her present Cabinet ministers (now called secretaries under the new Constitution) plan to resign and run for congress, allowing her to replace them with largely apolitical technocrats, as she has done with four posts recently.

``If Lakas chooses the candidates for Aquino to endorse in the elections, those candidates will be forced to move into Lakas,'' says Christian Monsod, a member of the Aquino-appointed body that drafted the Constitution.

Others say the traditional parties will never break up. ``If Aquino cannot get the parties to agree on one candidate in one area, that area will become a `free zone,''' says Conrado Jimenez Jr., a mayor.

The plebiscite's large ``yes'' vote damaged the prospects of anti-Constitution political parties, most observers say.

``The left and right missed the people again,'' Mr. Monsod said. He particularly criticized ex-Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, leader of the Nacionalista Party and the most outspoken ``no'' advocate, for changing his arguments during the campaign. In Mr. Enrile's home province of Cagayan, Aquino was winning in early returns. In Mr. Marcos's province of Ilocos Norte, ``no'' votes were winning.

The high ``yes'' vote was also helped by a failed rebellion of a splinter military group six days before the plebiscite. Also, many voters say they voted ``for Cory'' out of pride that she was named ``woman of the year'' by Time magazine.

A strong ``yes'' tally in Muslim areas (unknown at time of writing) could help Aquino in negotiating with Muslim rebel leaders on Feb. 9. The Constitution grants local autonomy for Muslim areas.

Aquino's victory also gives her more leverage with the Communist Party. Government-rebel talks have broken down, and a cease-fire agreement is due to end Feb. 7. A political showdown is expected.

The Communist Party opposed the Constitution, claiming the provision calling for land reform would cost the peasants more money than reforms under Marcos. But the government plans to obtain more than $500,000 in foreign funding to support land distribution.

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