MANILA — When she spoke before a gathering of businessmen last week, President Corazon Aquino demonstrated a new toughness that surprised both critics and supporters.
Tough talk was followed by tough action. After a presidential directive, policemen dismantled illegal picket lines set up by striking workers and government employees who had been ordered to meet presidential deadlines for improving public services--including filling potholes and clearing garbage from Manila's streets.
This demonstration of direct action comes after a long period of indecisiveness and drift. Critics have accused Aquino of being incapable of governing, much less of meeting the increasingly belligerent challenges from both communist insurgents and rebellious soldiers.
Aquino now seems determined to prove her critics wrong. There also appears to be an effort to change the image of her presidency from that of low-key, almost invisible leadership to one of dynamism and visibility.
Her supporters hope it is not too late. Until now, the threat of yet another bloody takeover attempt remains, making Manila an extremely nervous city where news of "unauthorized troop movements" have become almost routine. In the 20 months of the Aquino government, mutinous military factions have attempted to take power five times. In the last attempt in August, more than 50 people were killed. Renegade military officers led by Col. Gregorio (Gringo) Honasan are still at large, eluding a government dragnet yet managing to appear at press interviews right in the heart of the city.
At the same time, communist rebels have stepped up attacks on military and government installations, bridges and power lines. After August's aborted coup, the rebel leadership directed its forces to intensify military action, exploiting the rifts within the armed forces.
Almost daily the government's vulnerability is demonstrated by the continued revelation of rightist conspiracies and increasingly destructive leftist guerrilla attacks. While Aquino remains popular, the perception that her government is not in control is eroding her base of support, especially among Manila's influential middle class.
The conservative political parties opposed to Aquino are taking advantage of the current instability and waning presidential support, not just by constant public agitation but also by joining ranks in a "tactical alliance" with Vice President Salvador H. Laurel.
Laurel--who launched a tour of the United States on Friday to talk with Filipino groups in cities across the country, including Los Angeles--resigned from the Cabinet last month. He has since agreed to be part of a coalition with, among others, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, the former defense minister who was linked to previous takeover plots. While the ostensible purpose of the alliance is to prepare for local elections next January, opposition leaders say that the coalition also hopes to have a political structure ready in case Aquino resigns.
If that happens, Laurel is mandated by the constitution to take over the presidency. On such a "constitutional coup" the opposition is pinning its hopes. Some opposition leaders think this could happen if Aquino is continuously buffeted by left and right and is simply unable to govern, especially if a major chunk of the armed forces withdraws support from her government.
Whether it was intended or not, the Enrile-Laurel coalition complements the destabilization efforts of mutinous soldiers. Moreover, recent intelligence reports revealed the formation of a rightist alliance dedicated to Aquino's overthrow, bringing together soldiers loyal to the renegade Col. Honasan, supporters of Marcos and some opposition politicians.
Though the Aquino government has explicit assurances of U.S. support, the opposition is hoping to undermine that support by presenting itself as a more viable alternative that could guarantee protection of vital American interests in the Philippines, including two major military bases. Aquino remains ambiguous in her stand toward the retention of the bases when the treaty covering the installations expires in 1992.
Opposition politicians also echo official U.S. concerns about the increasing strength of the communist insurgency and the government's seeming incapacity to deal decisively with it. Though American officials have made it very clear that the U.S. government will never support a regime that acquires power through a military takeover, the opposition hopes to win approval for its "constitutional coup." As Laurel told a recent news conference, "The U.S. government has to deal with whoever is on the saddle in the government."
In the face of strengthened right-wing opposition--both overt political action and clandestine destabilization--Aquino's advisers now talk of a more aggressive consolidation of the political center, where her support lies. Aquino's new visibility and toughness appear to be part of that effort.