In her most scathing attack on Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos since her presidential campaign began last month, Corazon Aquino on Thursday labeled the authoritarian ruler "a dying dictator" and "an evil genius . . . who has been allowed to run amok for 20 years."
During his two decades in power, Aquino said, Marcos and "his cronies" have "plundered the economy, . . . drained the national treasury and hidden their wealth abroad," tortured and killed defenseless citizens, "prostituted" the Philippine military and dismantled every major institution of democracy in the country.
"The real issue, I declare, is Marcos himself . . . the performance of Mr. Marcos," Aquino said in her third and final major policy address in her campaign for the Feb. 7 election. "I dare him to be man enough to face these issues--and may the better woman win."
Marcos, meanwhile, was on the defensive Thursday evening during a campaign rally in Manila. Reacting to published reports challenging his claim that he was a hero who "gave up almost my life" during World War II--a claim that he has exploited heavily in the current campaign--Marcos launched a tirade against what he called the "crazy" foreign press.
"I don't know where they get such foolishness," he said.
The president's aides were, at the same time, denying a new round of rumors of his failing health, rumors triggered by his cancellation of a planned four-day trip to the island of Mindanao today. The trip was called off, they said, because of bad weather.
Aquino's charges against Marcos were made in a speech before the Manila Rotary Club at a luncheon in the government-owned Manila Hotel, where many employees have been under pressure to wear Marcos campaign buttons while on duty.
Applause, Wild Cheering
The 1,500 Rotarians interrupted Aquino's 50-minute speech with applause and wild cheering 47 times--even the waiters were seen applauding. And the packed ballroom gave her a standing ovation when she answered Marcos' charge that she is unqualified for the presidency because she is inexperienced.
"I concede that I cannot match Mr. Marcos when it comes to experience," Aquino declared. "I admit that I have no experience in cheating, stealing, lying or assassinating political opponents."
Aquino's husband, opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr., was shot to death while surrounded by 2,000 government soldiers and police as he returned here from self-imposed exile in the United States in August, 1983. His widow has vowed to put Marcos on trial for the slaying if elected.
Corazon Aquino, who had just returned from a 12-day campaign tour of Mindanao, expressed confidence in her victory, provided the election is fair, but she suggested that violence could erupt if Marcos tries to cheat to win reelection.
'Don't Frustrate the People'
"I have to warn Mr. Marcos: Don't you dare frustrate the will of the Filipino people or else you will have an angry people on your hands . . . and I hate to think what an angry people can do," she said.
She reserved her sharpest criticism for the charges that Marcos has been leveling against her during his recent rallies, most of which were held in and around Manila while Aquino toured the southern Philippine islands.
"I am generally disgusted with the way he is conducting his campaign, because, without batting an eye, he tells the most brazen lies," Aquino said. "What do we do with this overgrown child? . . . This man is desperate. He will stoop to anything. Can we allow an inveterate liar to represent us in the family of nations?"
Aquino denied charges by the president and First Lady Imelda Marcos that she is a front for the Communists.
"I am not a Communist, I never was and never will be," she declared. "Moreover, I will use the power of the state to fight any force, whether Communist or not, which will seek to overthrow our democratic government or destroy our cultural heritage, including our belief in God. But I will respect a Communist's right, or anybody's right for that matter, peacefully to sell his ideas to others."
Blame for Insurgency
Aquino placed the blame for the protracted Communist insurgency in the Philippines, which has left more than 4,000 Filipinos dead in the last year alone, squarely on Marcos.
"What has Mr. Marcos done about the insurgency?" she asked. "When he first became president in 1965, there were 165 insurgents; today there are more than 16,000 of them getting closer to the (presidential) palace doors."
Aquino charged that Marcos only used the insurgency to justify his 1972 declaration of martial law but has done nothing to combat it. "Then by craft, by coercion, by bribery, he overwhelmed the Constitutional Convention of 1972 and the referenda and plebiscites that followed.
"Marcos got what he wanted. He succeeded in ripping out the heart and soul of our old democratic system. The Marcos constitution today, instead of protecting us from dictatorship, institutionalizes dictatorship."
Aquino conceded that the insurgency "is not a simple problem. It is a combination of several problems involving the mind, the heart and the stomach of man. It is an economic problem, a social problem, a military problem and an ideological problem."
To solve it, she said, she would work to strengthen the morale and discipline in the Philippine military, which has been implicated in hundreds of human rights abuses in its efforts to put down the rebellion.
Aquino said she also would implement radical economic reforms, including the breakup of sugar and coconut monopolies dominated by Marcos' personal friends that have exploited landless and impoverished Filipino farmers for decades.
Aquino also laid out a five-point plan to dismantle the authoritarian machinery put in place by Marcos during his two decades in power--a period, she said, that has "devastated the nation and degraded our people."
Aquino promised to abolish Marcos' Amendment No. 6, a provision that allows the president to rule by decree, and to repeal decrees that allow the president to detain anyone for any period at will. Aquino's husband was held in solitary confinement for 7 1/2 years before he went into self-imposed exile with his wife in the United States.
She also pledged to "eliminate the social cancer of graft and corruption" by building a more honest and efficient civil service system and vowed to establish a commission to investigate and jail any members of the Marcos administration found guilty of corruption. "What belongs to the people," she said, "will be given back to the people."
May Revise Constitution
Aquino indicated she will try to work with the national legislature, now dominated by members of Marcos' ruling party, or call for a constitutional convention to reform the constitution passed by Marcos and his supporters during martial law.
Under the constitution, she said, she hopes that the president's appointing authority will be curtailed--"we must not allow the president to be surrounded by unthinking clones"--that an immunity clause shielding the president from prosecution will be repealed and that the president's term will be limited.
"We must spare our children and their children the scourge of a president for life," she said.
Aquino conceded that many of her proposals lack specifics, adding only, "We shall have enough time for that after we have ousted the Marcos dictatorship." And she admitted that many of her proposed changes would take time to implement.
Aquino's speech ended with a one-minute standing ovation and chants of "Cory, Cory, Cory!" (her nickname) from the audience of largely middle- and upper-class Filipinos.