Philippine President presses new officials to serve rural poor. COMBATTING INSURGENCY
Manila — Just after pro-Aquino candidates dominated last month's local elections in the Philippines, the President herself set an example for the task that lies ahead: She dropped in on a camp of poor squatters in a rural province, asking what the government should do for them.
The well-to-do President announced that her family's sugar lands would be sold to the plantation's workers.
Taken together, the two gestures signal an eagerness to step up public services - either from government bureaucrats or the benevolent wealthy - to the nation's dominantly impoverished rural-dwellers, who are wooed competitively by communist organizers.
During two years in power, through three polls, three Constitutions, three Cabinet revamps, and five coup attempts, Corazon Aquino's fledgling government has barely begun to deliver the roads, police protection, utilities, health care, and other public basics in the rural areas, so vulnerable to insurgency.
One reason government has not been a strong presence at the grass roots, besides Aquino's primary interest in restoring the fundamentals of democratic institutions, is that until yesterday none of the 16,457 local officials were elected and in place.
Before the Jan. 18 polls for governors, mayors, and other posts, Aquino appointees - or rather ``officers-in-charge'' - had governed, but without an electoral mandate that spells action.
With little fanfare, three-fourths of those elected took their oath on Tuesday, setting in motion the hoped-for local service that will lay down deeper political roots for the rest of Aquino's four years in office.
The other 4,000 or so offices remain unfilled because of contested results or the fact that voting was delayed until this month in several provinces because of expected violence.
Numerous cases of mismanagement in the conduct of this election, as well in the the congressional vote held last May 11, led Aquino on Monday to revamp the supervisory Commission on Elections.
Knowing full well the adage that ``all politics is local'' and that even her high national popularity may not translate well against local personalities, Aquino endorsed only a small minority of candidates.
She particularly shunned her relatives who ran for office - almost all of whom lost in what is seen as an anti-dynasty voter reaction.
Even without Aquino's political coattails, candidates attached to her ruling coalition took a majority in two key areas: the nation's 73 governorships and in the cities of metro Manila.
Coming in a distant second and third were candidates put up by two parties loosely affliated with Aquino: the Liberal Party under Senate President Jovito Salonga, and Unido under Vice-president Salavador Laurel. Still, these two parties treated the race as a warm-up to the 1992 presidential election.
The large Laurel family, which has dominated the province of Batangas near Manila for decades, was dealt a blow when a Laurel candidate for governor lost. Many observers cite this surprise, as well as a few others, as a small sign of a new political sophistication among Filipino voters.
Local Governments Secretary Luis Santos says younger voters are less attracted to the candidates' personalities and are more sensitive to issues and specific plans.
Delivering the goods locally will require Aquino to become more of a political broker, say her advisers. Congress, too, they say, will need to pass laws that fulfill provisions in the new Constitution to decentralize the strong power of the national government in favor of local autonomy.
Another voice pushing for local action is the new defense secretary, Fidel Ramos. Elevated from military chief of staff to this civilian post after the elections, he strongly advocates the use of local ``peace and order councils.'' These civilian-military bodies are seen as the primary tool for a coordinated counterinsurgency strategy, from military intelligence to caring for village needs.