PANIQUI, Philippines — As his sister the president watched from behind, and his brother-in-law the senator worked the crowd, Philippine Congressman Jose Cojuangco Jr. appealed to several thousand hometown voters here last week for a new political order, free from nepotism and patronage.
"We should not bring back the old system of patronage politics or, in the future, we will have another Marcos," Cojuangco declared, referring to Ferdinand E. Marcos, the authoritarian ruler whom he and his sister, President Corazon Aquino, helped to overthrow two years ago. "That is what this election is about. . . . The choice is, do we want the old system or the new system?"
For Aquino's critics, there was a deep irony in the scene on the makeshift stage in a downtown park in this, the president's childhood family home.
In the last few days before Monday's crucial local elections, critics have charged that the president and her politically powerful younger brother are simply following the age-old Philippine tradition of dynastic politics, backing a nationwide slate of candidates to whom, with few exceptions, family and owed favors are more important than good government.
But, when her brother had finished, Aquino took center stage and, in an extemporaneous speech, said that her best defense against such charges is here in her home province of Tarlac, where she is supporting an apolitical businessman known for his honesty and management skills over the gubernatorial recommendations of her brother, brother-in-law and top political lieutenants.
"My enemies say, Cory is weak, Cory is soft," the president told the crowd. "But no one has ever said Cory is a thief. No one says Cory is corrupt. . . . As long as I live, what Cory will do is not just for the town of Paniqui, for the province of Tarlac, but for the entire Philippines."
But dynasty and the evils of Philippine politics-past are not the only important issues at stake Monday, when more than 20 million Filipino voters stream to the polls to elect more than 15,000 governors, mayors and city councilmen nationwide in the first local elections to be held here in seven years.
President Aquino has called the elections a key, grass-roots political exercise, the latest political move to bring stability to her troubled nation.
On Monday, voters will be replacing the entire network of pro-Marcos local officials that Aquino fired en masse two years ago in an effort to consolidate her power after the popular and military revolt that overthrew Marcos.
Military authorities have stressed that the election itself will help them fight the nation's growing Communist insurgency. The elections, they say, will bring the first semblance of effective local government in two years to the nation's 73 largely rural provinces, where the insurgency has been worsening in recent years because the government has failed for the most part to deliver basic services to the people.
But political analysts here also have been speculating that there may be a darker side to the elections. Already, more than 75 candidates and campaign workers have been hacked, stabbed or shot to death. More than a dozen others have been kidnaped by Communist guerrillas trying to influence the polls. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the armed forces chief of staff, deployed a special force of more than 2,000 soldiers nationwide this weekend to keep order on election day.
Several experts have said that the violence is a grim indication that the old family political dynasties are using power politics to force their way back into control, and that, they say, is bound to leave bitterness and deep divisions.
The analysts also noted that Aquino, who had promised sweeping democratic reforms during her own 1986 presidential campaign against Marcos, has formed political alliances with some of the most powerful and feared of Marcos' henchmen in an apparent effort to gain more political control.
And, although her personal image remains untarnished, political activists and religious leaders have voiced deep concern that the way this campaign has gone is yet another sign that the Philippine nation may be going backward rather than forward.
Nation Is 'in Reverse'
"I think someone has shifted the gears of the Philippine ship of state," said Rudolfo Farinas, a 36-year-old gubernatorial candidate in Marcos' home province of Ilocos Norte. "Instead of forward, I think we're in reverse."
Farinas, who remains a Marcos supporter, is being backed by one faction of Aquino's ruling coalition, while Aquino and her brother are backing the 80-year-old mother of Marcos kingpin Congressman Roque Ablan.
In interviews nationwide, Roman Catholic bishops and priests have chided the president for failing to keep her promise to select new, younger and more professional faces as administration candidates for local office, to help end a decades-old standard of corrupt politics set under Marcos and half a dozen Philippine presidents before him.