New Election, Old Ways

Corazon Aquino promised change for the Philippines in '86, but her successor will preside over a country where actions speak softer than words

IN contrast to Ferdinand Marcos's snap election over six years ago, the impending Philippine presidential election has elicited sketchy reporting or even yawns from the American press. Why so?

At first glance, the contest seems to hold much novelty. President Corazon Aquino's successor will emerge from the first "normal" presidential election since the 1960s. (After 1968, Mr. Marcos virtually commandeered the electoral process, deeply corrupting it in the process.)

The May 11 election also marks another epochal event: With the Philippine Senate having rejected this year a renegotiated military-bases treaty with the United States, the new president will come to power as a century of American presence seems set to fade away. Links with the US, for so long the only external actor that counted for anything in Philippine politics, are weakening.

In the presidential race, the major contenders include former defense secretary Fidel Ramos; House of Representatives Speaker Ramon Mitra; President Aquino's estranged cousin Eduardo Cojuangco, and former immigration commissioner Miriam Defensor Santiago. The other three - Senate Speaker Jovito Salonga, Vice President Salvador Laurel, and Mrs. Imelda Marcos - have little chance.

Aquino publicly favors Mr. Ramos, a Protestant whom the country's hundred Roman Catholic bishops would rather do without. Manila's Cardinal Jaime Sin routinely meddles in political affairs: In 1986, Cardinal Sin helped catapult Aquino into power by mobilizing crowds to stare down Marcos's military. In this election he wants someone "untainted" by the Marcos era - which in Sin's code means rejecting Mr. Cojuangco, a businessman who benefited mightily from close ties to Marcos.

But, Cojuangco has formidable electoral assets, including a well-worn patronage system creating intense ties of loyalty.

By contrast, Mr. Mitra has the best party organization. But his reputation abroad suffers from business links to loggers now felling the Philippines' last stands of tropical timber. (In 1950, the country had 52 million hectares of tropical forest; less than 1 million hectares remain.)

Ramos - a former armed forces chief - has strung together support flowing from Aquino's endorsement and from his own backing within the middle class. Meanwhile, Ms. Santiago is winning the highest voter-survey approvals, but has a reputation as always ready to "shoot from the lip," as one account puts it.

Will the winner turn the country around? The times do not favor an easy "yes." Even without successive, recent natural disasters - typhoons and volcanic eruptions - the Philippines remains a disastrously governed country. The economy limps along while those of its neighbors soar. Sadly, the Manila government has frittered away priceless opportunities after 1986.

Initially possessing enormous international goodwill, Aquino has shown a lack both of control and of decisiveness. The upshot has been passivity, worsened by a series of military challenges backed by some civilian politicians. Her reforms, even the most tepid, have stalled for years amid governmental infighting.

Last year, for example, her much-touted land-reform agency acquired a grand total of 52 acres for redistribution to landless peasants. Only this year has a law on foreign investment incentives finally reached the statute book, after years of dickering. Words flow, but few in authority seem serious about domestic change.

Externally, Filipinos also seem enmeshed in a time warp. The rest of Asia knows that the cold war has ended. The rest of the region now mulls over the gathering commercial and political realignments in the Pacific. Thanks to Japanese, Korean, American, European, and Taiwanese investments the region's economies have grown quickly during the 1980s.

These trends still elude the Philippines. Exceptions exist - as in Cebu's export-led manufacturing zone, where commercial dynamism seems far from the politics of hair-pulling and chair-pulling in Manila. But the country mostly stagnates while its population soars amid poverty.

With this background, US indifference to the May 11 election becomes a little clearer. Americans are distracted by our own elections and failures, including the events in Los Angeles. But we are also weary of the gap between Filipino rhetoric and reality, believing Manila a city of big words but little action. And few in Washington wish to waste aid and effort when the US mood wears a "Come Home America" tag.

Nonetheless, the almost deliberately callous way the Bush administration is leaving the Philippines hardly speaks well of our capacity for national memory, or of our affection for a people who risked more than most for our victory in World War II.

I can remember, or at least can paraphrase, a comment at the end of a survey on the Philippines, written when I was a correspondent in Manila. "So what, fundamentally, does the Philippines need?" the article said. "More aid? No. New government programs? Not really - the existing ones, if enforced, would work.

"No, what the Philippines needs is simple. It is that 50 of the country's most prominent people should do what they say they are going to do. Until that happens, the Philippines will continue to drift while others pass them by."

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