After weeks of debilitating political crises, it was a stunning victory for Philippine President Corazon Aquino. In the largest turnout in the country’s history, nearly 80 per cent of Philippine voters said “yes” last week to a new constitution. The result
was an overwhelming vote of confidence for Aquino—who staked her political future on the charter’s passage—and gave the president a new six-year mandate to subdue the political and military foes who have repeatedly threatened her 11-month-old government. Even her staunchest critic, former defence minister Juan Ponce Enrile, received the results with apparent equanimity. “We accept the verdict of the people,” said Enrile, whom Aquino fired last November after an apparent coup plot. “We must now join hands in addressing the serious problems of our country.”
Having billed the charter as the first step toward political stability, Aquino now faces a daunting array of problems. Foremost is the battered economy. Burdened by a foreign debt of $35 billion,
the Philippines is now Southeast Asia’s second-poorest nation, after Indonesia, having been the second-richest in the 1960s. As well, an 18-year Communist insurgency shows no signs of abating. Despite Aquino’s call for an extension, last week a 60-day ceasefire expired with little hope of a quick renewal.
The new constitution is a complex 24,000-word document which reflects not only Filipinos’ desire for reform but also their deep Roman Catholic conservatism. The charter bans abortion and reaffirms such Catholic principles as the sanctity of the family. It also calls for a referendum on the continued presence of U.S. military bases in the country when the current treaty expires in 1991.
But despite her victory, Aquino still faces disenchanted military members. There have been three abortive coup attempts since President Ferdinand Marcos was deposed last February. Last week, after army voters overwhelmingly opposed the new charter, Aquino demanded that all soldiers swear allegiance to the constitution. But some observers said that any reluctance by Aquino to crush the Communist rebels could foster more coup attempts. “The military is still restive. The Communist rebels are still at war. The economy is in tatters,” said a Western diplomat. “All Aquino has now is a fresh, unquestioned mandate to solve this mess.” Indeed, even as Filipinos celebrated their new charter, signs of trouble mounted. Two days before the truce expired on Feb. 7, rebels in the northern province of Luzon said that they would not extend the ceasefire. Armed forces chief Fidel Ramos immediately called on his army to prepare for war. “Should the ceasefire lapse, we are ready to hit them hard,” Ramos said, “so get ready.” That, said some analysts, could signal the end of hopes for a negotiated peace—and the first major challenge to Aquino’s new mandate.
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