MANILA — The eleventh-hour compromise between Philippine opposition leaders Corazon C. Aquino and Salvador H. Laurel, resulting in a united ticket for the Feb. 7 election, confronts President Ferdinand E. Marcos with his toughest electoral battle in 20 years.
Marcos called for the "snap" election assuming that a long-fragmented opposition would be incapable of uniting against him. He hoped to prove to critics--here and in America--that he remains the country's only viable leader, that only he would be capable of curtailing a rapidly growing communist insurgency and turning around an economy in crisis.
The fact of a united Aquino-Laurel ticket, however, puts Marcos in a virtual no-win situation for the first time in his 20-year rule. If he calls off the elections now (the Marcos-dominated Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the constitutionality of the unscheduled election), he will be pictured as an isolated dictator afraid of his own people. If he legitimately wins what should be a close election, inevitable charges of electoral fraud will undermine his claim for a new mandate. And if he is forced to cheat on a large scale, he will be vilified for trying to save a corrupt regime.
Any scenario that has Marcos remaining in power will do absolutely nothing to rebuild the public confidence needed to end 30 months of dissent and continuing political uncertainty. For that, the elections will only show what many observers fear and many Filipinos take for granted: that reform is anathema to Marcos.
Few analysts feel Marcos, 68, will ever leave Malacanang Palace alive--least of all to vacate for the widow of his former chief rival, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., assassinated at Manila Airport on Aug. 21, 1983.
Since her husband's assassination, "Cory" Aquino has become a symbol, a moral force above the political fray. More than picking up "Ninoy" Aquino's thwarted attempts to promote national reconciliation, this 52-year-old woman has come to represent the honesty, simplicity and religious commitment that are the traits of the people in this 85% Catholic nation.
While politics is a Philippines national pastime, she is a reluctant politician. While candidates have an answer to everything, she will admit otherwise when she has none. She speaks in terms of justice, not vengeance, of prayer instead of power. And yet she is intelligent enough to juggle the petty political deals in building a unified ticket without diluting the primacy of her cause.
Cory Aquino's chances of actually beating the Marcos machine lie in a rather amazing feat: In the process of unifying the opposition, she has brought together both traditional opposition figures and post-assassination populists, proponents of both the right and left, of those favoring retention of the two major U.S. military bases as well as hard-core nationalists.
Much of her appeal, and ultimate success, will depend upon her ability to parry Marcos' expected attempts to force her to commit to specific policies that could drive a wedge within her delicate coalition--or to entice her into traditional Filipino political mudslinging.
Just as important will be the role of the Catholic Church, led by the effervescent archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin. His role cannot be understated. As perhaps the only nationwide institution Marcos has been unable to co-opt, the church has nonetheless felt its role--a cornerstone of social stability--undermined during the president's relentless drive to centralize and maintain power.
In the pre-Marcos era of a more pluralistic political system, the church set the popular psychological parameters within which the political game could be played. It would obviously like to see that role returned. And with Cory Aquino (a personal friend of the cardinal) as a candidate, priests can quietly support her moral stand in weekly sermons throughout the archipelago.
In the face of almost unlimited funds available for the government's campaign and the traditional political largess of Marcos' New Society Movement party (KBL, for its Tagalog initials), the church can say, as it did during the National Assembly elections of May, 1984, that taking money and T-shirts to attend rallies is no sin, as long as one votes his or her conscience inside the polling booth.
Cardinal Sin himself played a major role in building the unified opposition ticket. Returning from the synod of bishops in Rome at the end of November, he found Cory Aquino trying desperately to work out a united coalition. "Doy" Laurel was steadfast in his belief that, with his United Nationalist Democratic Organization (Unido) having the strongest grass-roots political machine, he would be the best bet to challenge Marcos.