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In Manila the Honeymoon Isn't Over, but Bridal Attendants Stir Concern . . .

May 18, 1986|Mark Fineman | Mark Fineman is The Times' correspondent in Manila.

MANILA — When she was a presidential candidate, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino told more than 1,000 of Manila's most powerful business leaders how she would solve the nation's economic and political crises during her first 100 days in office.

"With the zeal of a crusading housewife let loose in a den of world-class thieves," Aquino vowed, she would dismantle piece-by-piece the dictatorship of President Ferdinand E. Marcos and replace it with a humane democracy that would serve all 54 million Filipinos.

Now, as the exhilaration of liberation has begun to fade, and as Aquino approaches the 100-day landmark, potential problems are brewing in the government, most of them a result of that policy of "purgation and purification."

In the coffeehouses and newspaper columns of Manila, there is grumbling from Aquino supporters and enemies alike that many of her officials are more interested in punishing Marcos than in running a government.

Political crises continue in towns and provinces where Aquilino Pimentel, Aquino's controversial minister of local governments, has fired dozens of popularly elected, pro-Marcos mayors and governors.

The Philippine economy remains stagnant, as Aquino's powerful Commission on Good Government has frozen tens of millions of dollars worth of potential investment capital and sequestered assets of major corporations. These steps were taken as part of the campaign to ferret out and recover the fortune that Marcos and his cronies are suspected of having stolen from the national treasury during two decades in power.

Members of the powerful armed forces, who were the key to Aquino's rise to power, are holding back in the battle to put down a burgeoning communist insurgency, out of fear that Aquino's Commission on Human Rights will punish them for violations under Marcos' rule.

And, in this political and economic vacuum, the military continues to lose ground in its war against the insurgency, which has taken nearly 800 lives in the Philippine countryside since Aquino assumed office--despite a long-held belief that it was Marcos who fueled the communist rebellion.

Clearly, Aquino still enjoys enormous popularity among the Filipino people. The political leaders who backed her campaign, and were rewarded with powerful seats in her Cabinet, still consider Aquino their undisputed leader. And the armed forces, 200,000 strong, that started the coup that brought Aquino into office on Feb. 25, remain loyal and obedient to their first-ever woman commander in chief.

But as the political and economic crises continue, frustration and tension build among the top military leaders, key Filipino financiers and even some of Aquino's personal advisers. Behind the frustration is fact: The Aquino government so far has made little headway toward one of its principal goals--bringing political and economic stability to the strategic Philippine archipelago.

The target of the growing discontent is the Aquino Cabinet, 18 men and women with great power because the president is determined to decentralize the dictatorial structure Marcos created.

Critics give Aquino high marks for her motives in delegating so much power but they caution that Aquino's self-styled "government by consultation" has made her administration appear to be weak, internally divided, often contradictory and indecisive.

Last week, for example, a Cabinet faction led by Aquino's minister of economic planning, Solita Monsod, announced that the Philippines might refuse to pay some of its $26-billion foreign debt. The proposal sent tremors through the international lending community at a time when other Cabinet ministers were trying to negotiate better terms with foreign bankers.

Almost immediately, Aquino's conservative minister of finance, Jaime Ongpin, pressured the president into announcing that the proposal was not policy and that the government will repay all debts.

Aquino has insisted that divergent views within her Cabinet are not a major problem. "This is not really a disadvantage," she said at a rare press conference last week. "This is democracy in action."

Aquino was asked to answer critics who charge that her Cabinet ministers, among them more than a dozen millionaires, three Harvard graduates and two with law degrees from Yale, were as elitist and oligarchic as those of Marcos. They are elitist, Aquino replied, only in the sense of being "the best possible people for the job."

Asked for her assessment of her government based on its first three months in power, Aquino said it is a "popular government . . . . I think it has credibility." She listed as top achievements the fulfilling of campaign promises to free the majority of political prisoners, bringing back habeas corpus, retiring most of the generals who had stayed on beyond retirement age and restoring "our basic freedoms." But her greatest achievement, Aquino emphasized, was "getting rid of Marcos . . . . If nothing else, I think I should be given credit for having driven Mr. Marcos from office."

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