WORLD

The divided opposition

LIN NEUMANN March 19 1984
WORLD

The divided opposition

LIN NEUMANN March 19 1984

The divided opposition

THE PHILIPPINES

Doubts and defections in recent weeks have plagued supporters of opposition plans to boycott the Philippines’ National Assembly elections in May. Many key political figures who had agreed to the boycott later pledged to participate in the campaign. But last week the boycott organizers mustered a display of support for their position that the elections are a sham. A rag-tag army of 50,000 peasants, students and office workers converged on Manila’s Rizal Park, bearing red and yellow banners denouncing President Ferdinand Marcos and the May 14 vote. “Now do you believe us?” a visibly elated Manila writer activist, Niñez Olivarez, asked journalists. “Now do you believe there is a boycott movement?” Still, the noisy mass demonstration could not mask the absence of the Philippines’ most influential opposition figures, who have rejected the boycott. Among them is Corazon Aquino, widow of Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino, Marcos’s chief opponent until Aquino’s Aug. 12 assassination at Manila airport. Former Senator Salvador Laurel, who heads a 12-party coalition, the United Nationalist Democratic Organization is also ignoring the boycott. The recent defections have sparked open disputes among the nation’s opposition parties. In turn, the splits have given a clear campaign advantage to Marcos and his ruling New Society Movement. Marcos’s political affairs minister, Leonardo Perez, boasted that the ruling party “has the political machinery while the opposition is hopelessly divided.”

At first, opposition leaders refused to participate unless Marcos gave up his extraordinary powers to dissolve the assembly at any time and to rule by decree. Then, last month opposition leaders began to break rank. Laurel explained that his boycott pledge had been a “tactical move,” adding, “It is not realistic to expect Marcos to grant those demands.” In addition to the split of the parties, members of Aquino’s own family have quarrelled publicly. His brother Agapito (Butz) Aquino, a popular political novice, has staunchly defended the boycott even though Aquino’s widow rejected it. Referring to her public image as the defender of moral responsibility, he charged, “She has not lived up to that reverence.”

Laurel views the election as the last hope to unseat Marcos without resorting to violence. He submits that the opposition could win 60 to 70 per cent of the 183 seats in the assembly (it now holds less than 12). Even with 20 per

cent, he says, “We can get impeachment proceedings against Marcos under way.” But boycott supporters insist that anyone who participates in the vote will only improve Marcos’s tarnished international reputation. Liberal party spokesman Abraham Sarmiento also charges that the government could rig the balloting process. “You may win the voting but lose the counting,” he said.

Still, Marcos is under heavy pressure from Western allies—and creditors—to hold free elections. In Washington, Congress is considering the first instalment of a $900-million, five-year rental payment for U.S. military bases in the Philippines. Some U.S. legislators have suggested that approval be contingent on fair elections. Meanwhile, officials of the International Monetary Fund have also expressed concern about the vote’s impact on the nation’s ability to pay its $25-billion foreign debt. Marcos moved to allay creditor concerns by introducing stiff austerity measures last year designed to bring the economy under control. Already, imports have slowed dramatically while the value of the nation’s currency, the peso, has plummeted by as much as 50 per cent.

Meanwhile, the outwardly confident leaders of Marcos’s party also are trying to resolve their own internal disputes promptly. One problem the party’s central committee faces is choosing candidates for the 183 available seats from among 1,700 loyal party workers who have sought nomination. In one high-level power play, said government sources, the president’s ambitious wife, Imelda, demanded that Prime Minister César Virata drop his bid for the nomination in his home province of Cavite, where she had hoped to sponsor a friend. But Marcos decided that Virata, an internationally respected economic planner, needed a popular mandate to keep his cabinet post. Imelda, meanwhile, will retain her cabinet post as minister of human settlements, an appointment that Marcos made himself. As well, observers in Manila maintain that shç still intends to succeed him.

But the manoeuvring has not affected the party’s ability to campaign. Activists are wooing the electorate with attractively packaged land reform schemes and massive cash infusions to local districts in the form of development projects. And even if the opposition were to trounce Marcos at the polls, he will still control the National Assembly. A new bill sponsored by Perez would allow him to appoint a total of 37 assembly members of his own choosing to ensure his majority. For the 48 million inhabitants of the Philippines, therefore, the May elections are likely to be only an exercise in frustration.

LIN NEUMANN