OSTENSIBLY, Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos dropped in to grill his military commanders who are fighting communist insurgents. But what Mr. Ramos was really testing were the political waters in this provincial capital in the eastern Philippines.
"We're going around the country to make sure our security and stability are assured," Ramos said, after several hours of shaking hands, wooing town elders, and being feted as "the next president of the Philippines."
After a half decade of reluctant rule by President Corazon Aquino, the Philippines is plunging with gusto into a new political season. Never mind that the May 1992 presidential election is more than a year away. Already an assortment of about 10 contenders vie to succeed Mrs. Aquino, who was thrust into power by the popular uprising against the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
"It's fiesta time," says Teodoro Benigno, a former Aquino spokesman and now a political commentator. "Filipinos are in love with politics and 1992."
Yet the festival atmosphere masks the political discontent, deep economic problems, threatened instability, and widespread poverty in this sprawling archipelago of 60 million people, political observers say.
Aquino has repeatedly insisted that she will not run again. But the widow of assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino still enjoys widespread respect and influence for restoring democracy in the Philippines, observers here say, and her endorsement could be crucial for her successor.
Ramos, the popular 63-year-old former general who quashed seven coup attempts against Aquino's troubled government, needs her support, analysts say.
Lacking a political party, Ramos faces an uphill struggle against veteran legislator Ramon Mitra for the nomination of the ruling coalition, the Struggle for a Democratic Philippines (LDP).
Barring that, he is expected to contest the election under the banner of the newly launched United People Power Movement.
"He's like your General Schwarzkopf," says Vicente Garcia, a police official in Catbalogan. "He's presidential timber."
Also in the wings is Oscar Orbos, Aquino's 40-year-old executive secretary and apparent favorite. Although discounted by many as an inexperienced newcomer, Mr. Orbos hopes to appeal to voters below the age of 44, some 85 percent of the population, political observers say.
YET, feudalistic, crony-style politics is deeply rooted in the Philippines, political analysts say. Critics say the system of dispensing jobs, money, and favors, entrenched during the Marcos years, has deepened further as Aquino has failed to challenge traditional bosses and landed families and alienated reformers who helped put her in power.
The troubled economy, buffeted by the Gulf conflict and higher oil prices, could make vote-buying more widespread. "It's election time, and manna will fall from heaven," says Mr. Benigno.
Aquino's choice will likely be influenced by her younger brother, Jose Cojuangco, secretary-general of the ruling LDP and a key player in the party's nomination process.
Most prominent among Aquino's opposition is her estranged cousin, Eduardo (Danding) Cojuangco Jr., a Marcos loyalist who fled with the late president in 1986, but slipped back from exile last year.
The conservative forces also include Salvador Laurel, the current vice president, and Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who helped lead the revolt against Marcos and became Aquino's defense minister only to be dismissed on charges that he instigated a coup attempt against Aquino in 1986.
Although Danding Cojuangco is alleged to have built a fortune by managing the money of small farmers deposited in his United Coconut Planters Bank, he has made gains in rebuilding a political base by positioning himself as an alternative to the disarray of the Aquino government.
"Of them all, Danding understands Philippine politics and the role that the patron and big man plays in it," says a Western diplomat in Manila.
Also in the shadows is former First Lady Imelda Marcos, who is in exile in the United States but could make a breakthrough in her efforts to return to the Philippines. Although recently denying her a passport, Aquino said this month that the ban on Mrs. Marcos' return would be lifted once she is formally charged by the Philippine government.
Aquino has claimed that the Marcos family stole billions of dollars from the Philippines.
"If Imelda does come back, she would probably run for Congress," says an Asian diplomat. "But even if she doesn't, she'll certainly be throwing her money around."