Playing an old game - with some new rules - in the Philippines. Far from Manila, landowner feuds disrupt first post-Marcos vote

Joseph Maranon nearly cried three months ago when his family clan selected him to run for the May 11 congressional elections in the Philippines. And for good reason. Since the clan threw a hat in the ring for him, the wealthy businessman has had his cane fields torched, his life threatened, his farm equipment destroyed, his savings drained, and his character besmirched.

``It's the same old game,'' says Mr. Maranon, ``but with different rules than before [Ferdinand] Marcos.''

The new rules are part of a dramatic return to democracy in the Philippines that begin last year with the rise to power of Corazon Aquino, a new Constitution, and now elections for a House and Senate.

On the once-rich sugar island of Negros, Maranon ran in the second district, a political baliwick for his family, but also turf for two other clans, the Gustilos and Pueys.

Maranon's alliance with the Gustilos, and his opposition to Manual Puey, a shipping agent and sugar land owner, resulted in an acrimonious and tense campaign. The final tally was disrupted by ballot-box snatching and other confusion. Final results of the elections may take days in the district and nationwide.

The race in northern Negros, however, is quite telling of how the Philippines has - or has not - changed.

Unlike pre-Marcos years, in which the same old politicans kept popping up, the two main candidates for Congress are nonpoliticians, though they come from families with political backgrounds. The same was true for Mrs. Aquino.

Another change was the emergence of the left, namely the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), for the first time since independence in 1946. Maranon's opponent not only received Aquino's endorsement but also quiet support from CPP-led rebels, who roam the hills above Negros's sugar fields.

This rebel support was necessary because Mr. Puey appeared vulnerable to the Maranons. After two decades of association with former President Marcos, they had a stronger political and economic hold on the area.

Many voters, however, now consider any Marcos tie a liability. Thus, Maranon felt forced to run as an independent. His goal was to project the idea that he would not become a local warlord, similiar to the late Armando Gustilo, the Marcos-era warlord of northern Negros.

``I cannot be in his shoes,'' says Maranon, ``And I can never be as strong as him.''

The left, however, tried to tag Maranon as a warlord. On April 20, communist guerrillas attacked an Army garrison near a Maranon-dominated sugar mill, killing four soldiers and one civilian, in an alleged attempt to scare voters. When Army helicopters struck the fleeing rebels, killing more than five, Maranon was accused by opponents of being the architect of the military's response.

Maranon and Mr. Puey have different responses to Negros's growing communist rebellion, which catapulted when world sugar prices fell in 1984 and thousands of normally docile sugar workers went hungry.

Puey works for immediate reconcilation with rebels, while Maranon supports military action and help for sugar barons to diversify into new crops.

Both, however, reflect a new benevolent aristocracy on Negros. They are eager to criticize absentee landlords and to distribute some land to workers if the government pays them for the acreage for which they have little use.

``We are aligning with land reform, not out of charity but out of fear,'' says Maranon.

Puey ran on the platform that the Maranons had been in power long enough, now it was his family's turn. Both are battling over control of sugar mills, money, and jobs from the national bureacracies for political control that will influence the outcome of local elections in August. The campaign was filled with death threats, but little obvious vote buying, unlike previous elections.

Both candidates say the Communist Party and Mr. Marcos have helped make voters more politically sophisticated. They do not fall for mere promises anymore. But political families still call the shots in the area.

``We cannot avoid it,'' says Maranon. ``Otherwise, elections would just be a dangerous race between democracy and communism.''

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