MANILA — The Philippines Senate today formally rejected a new military base treaty with the United States, plunging the Philippines into an economic and political crisis over the future of the Subic Bay Naval Base, America's last military outpost in Southeast Asia.
The 12-11 vote by the Senate came a day after President Corazon Aquino announced that she will seek a national referendum to decide the base question, attempting to override the Senate action with a popular vote.
The 23-member Senate narrowly voted twice against the new Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Security with the United States, which provided for a continued U.S. presence for 10 years. Under the 1987 constitution, U.S. troops cannot legally remain beyond today without a new treaty.
"The proposed treaty is overwhelmingly one-sided and lopsided in favor of the United States," said Sen. Agapito Aquino, the president's brother-in-law, who voted against the treaty.
"I love my country more than I love my president," he said.
Sen. Juan Enrile, a former defense minister, called the proposed treaty a "constitutional abomination," because, he said, it violates Philippine law banning nuclear weapons and other provisions of the 1987 charter.
"For me, it's a new beginning of our history as a free people," Enrile said after the vote.
While the Senate clearly rejected the treaty, the future of the Subic Bay Naval Base, which employs 8,000 U.S. servicemen, was less clear.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager said that the United States supports Aquino's continuing efforts to win approval of the treaty.
"Our presumption is that we would await the results of the referendum," Schrager said about a possible U.S. withdrawal from Subic Bay.
Even before the Senate rejection, U.S. officials noted that under terms of a U.S.-Philippines pact signed in 1966, the United States has until September, 1992, to complete its withdrawal from the base.
Opinion polls have indicated that a majority of the Filipino people support the continued presence of U.S. forces in the country, largely because of the enormous importance of the base to the nation's fragile economy.
The proposed 10-year treaty calls for the United States to pay the Philippines $203 million in rent each year. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars reach the Philippines in indirect payments, and the naval base provides about 40,000 local jobs in an area hit hard by unemployment.
The closing of the base would cut more than 2% off the Philippines gross national product.
Opponents of the treaty contend that it is too lopsided in favor of the United States and preserves a dependent relationship between the Philippines and its former colonial master.
Aquino said that while the Senate's power to ratify the treaty is enshrined in the constitution, it is an "even more basic right" of the people to participate in decision-making on matters of national importance.
Aquino set in motion a complex and untried law that allows a popular referendum on any matter after 10% of the nation's voters sign an initiating petition.
"Once again, 'people power' is being called upon to break a possible stalemate where the exercise of the prerogative may not be reflective of the people's will," Aquino said in her TV address Sunday.
Aquino did not specify what would be considered in the proposed referendum or when it might be held. Legal experts said that merely overturning the Senate's decision might prove insufficient to stand up in court and that she might have to seek a formal amendment to the constitution to permit the continued presence of foreign troops.
The constitution provides that no foreign troops are permitted in the Philippines past this month's deadline "except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose." The constitution cannot be amended until five years after its ratification--or until February of next year.
The Philippines is holding national elections for a new government next May, and the proposed referendum could cause confusion by overlapping with the campaign period.
"The whole thing is a political quagmire," said Alex Magno, head of the political science department at the University of the Philippines. "There will be long battles in the Supreme Court, which could result in an embarrassing defeat for the president. The whole process will take its toll on the election."
Some supporters of the bases agreement are calling on the government to adopt a so-called Greek option, similar to one used by Athens in 1988, in which a decision to terminate a bases agreement with the United States is simply postponed until after the elections are held.
The U.S. and the Philippines--a Chronology
* MAY, 1898. U.S. Commodore George Dewey leads powerful fleet that sinks Spanish armada in Manila Bay. Spanish surrender, and the United States begins its colonization of the Philippines.