MANILA — With more than half the official returns from Friday's presidential election still lying untallied in provincial halls across the country, the Philippine National Assembly on Monday began an arduous, final counting process that challenger Corazon Aquino charged is a desperate ploy by President Ferdinand E. Marcos to "wriggle out" of defeat.
Hundreds of Aquino supporters streamed out to the ultramodern assembly building Monday afternoon in the Manila suburb of Quezon City, praying and chanting for justice and carrying signs that read, "Marcos Concede!"
Meanwhile, the Marcos-controlled legislature set up 10-foot-tall tally boards and laid down rules for yet another vote-counting procedure that Marcos' top aides said will probably take another full week.
Once considered a simple formality, the assembly's canvass has taken on enormous proportions because two sanctioned--but unofficial--"quick counts" have become bogged down in technical failure and charges of rigging.
An estimated 24 million ballots were cast in the nation's 137 provincial and municipal districts.
Now, the official, final decision on who will be declared winner of an election already tainted by charges of massive fraud and manipulation by Marcos' ruling party is entirely in the hands of a legislative body that Marcos controls with a two-thirds majority.
Declaring "we will take power," Aquino, who already has proclaimed herself the winner on the basis of an unofficial, independent tally, pledged Monday that her supporters will continue their vigils outside the assembly building.
Warning to Assembly
"I serve warning to its members that they must now act like the representatives of the people they claim to be," she said.
Speaking to about 2,000 chanting and cheering fans in a parking lot of Manila's business district of Makati, the 53-year old political novice charged Monday that Marcos is hiding behind a constitution that he himself created when the nation was under martial law in 1973. That constitution allows the nation's partisan assembly to render a final decision.
"In his desperate and shameful attempts to rescue victory from our landslide, Mr. Marcos talks of the constitutional process," Aquino said. "Marcos now pits his constitution against democracy, . . . the creation of one man's greed for personal power."
Angrily, Aquino added: "Don't throw your constitution at me, Mr. Marcos. In spite of the wholesale cheating and terrorism, Marcos is still staring defeat in the face."
But in interviews with Marcos Cabinet members and opposition leaders, it became clear that the president has created a process that many say will ensure a victory for him.
Asked whether there is any way that Aquino could win in a legislature so heavily weighted against her, Marcos' majority whip, Arturo Pacificador, said: "She cannot win. She has no votes."
And opposition leader Ernesto Maceda, a staunch Aquino supporter throughout the campaign, said in an interview Monday morning: "The ballgame is over. Marcos has stolen the election. The results have been rigged, and a lot of people are dancing in the halls of Malacanang" (the presidential palace.)
Of Aquino's optimism from the pulpit and podium during her speeches of the last three days, Maceda, a longtime politician who was once a member of Marcos' ruling party, said: "This is Mrs. Aquino's first political battle. This is my 11th campaign, and I know the president."
Still, Maceda added that, even in defeat, the opposition will have won a major moral victory over Marcos, whom he said is now seen by the nation and the world as "a cheater and a fraud. Marcos won the battle, but I think we won the war. I think Marcos has signed his own political death warrant."
Nonetheless, thousands of Filipinos who have spent their days and nights guarding ballot boxes and election returns during the prolonged counting process maintained their hope for an honest result.
Many of the volunteer poll watchers in regions where the local vote count is complete ushered provincial election officials to airports, onto commercial flights to Manila and from the Manila airport to the assembly building, where they deposited the original copies of tally sheets from each election district.
Those are the official tally sheets that will now be examined by a special committee of nine legislators called the Board of Tellers--five from Marcos' party and four from the opposition--created by the assembly Monday as an official examination board.
The committee will look for errors that would invalidate the tally sheets, and the assembly as a whole will rule on each one. As of midday today, though, the committee had received only 60 of the 137 tally sheets.
The National Assembly cannot vote on who won the election, which Marcos called to test his mandate from the Philippine people and restore credibility to his government, until the committee examines each of the district tallies and issues its report.