Filipinos await real vote for president Marcos crony runs in front of the pack

May 10, 1992|By Vernon Loeb | Vernon Loeb,Knight-Ridder News Service

MANILA -- Six years ago, millions of Filipinos took to the streets, toppled a dictator and electrified the world. They called it "people power." It was hard to resist.

Tomorrow, millions of Filipinos will take to the polls in an exercise of power that should, in many ways, have just as much appeal: casting ballots in this country's first full-fledged presidential election in 23 years.

Sadly enough, it doesn't even come close.

Whatever sense of hope was produced in those heady days of 1986 has long since been buried in six years of missed opportunity. And the clarity of purpose that existed back then has been shattered by a confusing, divisive campaign that threatens to turn back the clock.

Yesterday, three people were killed and 56 were injured in a pair of politically motivated explosions on the final day of campaigning, the Associated Press reported.

Police said two people died and 41 were injured when a grenade exploded during a rally in General Santos City, 660 miles south of Manila. Another person died and 15 others were injured in a bombing in Cotabato, 550 miles south of Manila.

A grenade exploded before dawn in the office of a mayoral candidate in the Manila suburb Quezon City; there were no casualties.

The latest attacks brought to at least 38 the number killed since the campaign began last February.

Peaceful action was the theme six years ago when a demure housewife in a yellow dress named Corazon C. Aquino called a rally in Manila's Luneta Park and announced a seven-point program of civil disobedience to drive a corrupt tyrant from office.

A million people showed up; Ferdinand E. Marcos fell 10 days later.

Last week, tens of thousands were back in that very same park, attending gala campaign finales staged by Imelda Marcos, the late dictator's well-known widow, and Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, Mr. Marcos' pre-eminent business crony.

But the most noteworthy aspect of the current campaign is not that Mrs. Marcos and Mr. Cojuangco -- both of whom fled the country with Mr. Marcos in 1986 -- are back and running for president.

It is that Mr. Cojuangco, who ruled a government-controlled coconut monopoly under Mr. Marcos and is now one of the richest men in the country, could easily win.

In the seven-way race, he is one of three presumed front-runners, along with former Defense Secretary Fidel "Eddie" Ramos and House Speaker Ramon "Monching" Mitra. (Mrs. Marcos finishes close to the bottom in most polls.)

With so many candidates in the race and no provision for a runoff election, about a third of the vote could easily impel one of them to the presidency, which means the winner probably won't be taking office with anything close to a mandate.

But more than a few analysts fear a vote in which cheating is significant and only a few percentage points separate the major contenders. That dead heat could easily degenerate into chaos, they say, and provoke intervention by the restive Philippine military.

Were that to happen, according to Amando Doronila, the editor of the Manila Chronicle, the legacy of people power would be ironic indeed: "The democratic process," he said, "would lead to a negation of the process itself."

After Mrs. Aquino's six years in office, the Philippines remains beset by serious social inequities, a Communist insurgency, rampant government corruption and rapid environmental degradation.

But the greatest failing has been its utter inability to tap into the economic dynamism sweeping the rest of Southeast Asia.

While neighbors of the Philippines have racked up the highest growth rates in the world over the past six years, its economy has remained largely stagnant and actually contracted last year, leaving 50 percent of the nation's 65 million people living below the poverty level.

Mrs. Aquino's achievements lie elsewhere. She restored the institutions of democracy -- in form if not always in substance. And she made it to the end of her term, which many predicted she would never do, surviving seven attempted coups with manifest courage.

Mr. Ramos, as defense chief, stood by her during those military revolts, which is the apparent reason she is backing him to succeed her as president. But endorsing Mr. Ramos has put her at odds with both the ruling party and her influential brother, Congressman Jose "Peping" Cojuangco, who have endorsed House Speaker Mitra.

This has split the government establishment into two camps, possibly paving the way for a victory by Danding Cojuangco, Mrs. Aquino's estranged cousin.

"Politics in our country -- you choose the lesser evil," said Mario Moya, a taxi driver. "All of them are evil."

Mr. Cojuangco's standing as a front-runner in the presidential race may be hard for many Americans to fathom, given his history as a leading Marcos crony. But it doesn't mystify Mr. Doronila, the editor.

To him, Mr. Cojuangco personifies the "padrone" syndrome in Filipino culture, a sort of feudalism in which poor, ordinary people look to those in authority for handouts, especially when times get tough.

Thus, many Filipinos still see politics in very personal terms and remain quite willing to trade their votes for personal considerations -- a new artesian well, say, for the neighborhood. Or maybe just 200 pesos, about $8, which seems to be the going rate for a vote this time out.

"If you've got a lot of money, you can buy a lot of votes," said Julio S. Callanga, a political neophyte running for mayor in Jaen, a town three hours north of Manila.

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