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Aquino’s Purge Cripples Local Governments

Times Staff Writer

There is no government in this once-bustling port city on the southwestern tip of the Philippines.

At night, the drug addicts, pickpockets and smugglers have virtual free rein on the docks. Even during daylight, there is, on the average, a shooting a day in the city’s main market--sometimes over the price of squid, sometimes because of feuds among vendors. Potholes in main streets grow bigger by the week, and many city employees simply are not showing up for work.

Any hopes that Zamboanga, a once-colorful city, had for attracting tourism have all but died. Even the sea gypsies, who live on outrigger canoes and who used to thrive by hawking their coral, shells and grass mats to Western visitors, have become little more than harbor beggars.

Touched by Revolution

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The 72-hour revolution that drove President Ferdinand E. Marcos into exile has finally reached the shores of the Zamboanga peninsula.

Clearly, much of the lawlessness and urban decay in Zamboanga City stand as a legacy of Marcos’ misrule. This was an opposition-controlled town for nearly a decade, and Marcos spent years punishing the city fathers who opposed him in Zamboanga City by denying them federal aid and military assistance.

But local officials say that blame for the continuing crisis in this city of about 500,000 now rests on the shoulders of President Corazon Aquino.

“I’ll tell you what really bugs me most right now,” said Susan delos Reyes, who retains her title as the city’s vice mayor although the Aquino administration has suspended her power to govern. “It is that there is actually no one in control here right now. It is really anarchy.”

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Grinds to Halt

Zamboanga City is not alone. Local government in virtually every city, town and village in this nation of 54 million has ground to a standstill in the two months since Aquino rose to power and launched a campaign to purge the nation of local officials loyal to Marcos.

Acting through her local government minister, Aquilino Pimentel, Aquino and top aides have been systematically firing elected pro-Marcos governors and mayors--the point men in Marcos’ once-formidable political machine--and replacing them with men and women loyal to Aquino in all 74 provinces of the Philippines.

Many popular local politicians have been dismissed, and in some cases, Aquino’s appointments have touched off clashes between supporters of the incoming and outgoing authorities.

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The officials themselves have charged that Aquino, who has proclaimed a temporary constitution that gives her powers even broader than those of Marcos, has orchestrated a witch hunt.

Military Critics

Even Aquino’s military leaders, whose February intervention helped bring her to power, have been increasingly critical of the appointments. Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile told reporters over lunch last week that his commanders have sent Aquino several recent reports that replacing elected local officials with her appointees “is creating law-and-order problems in many communities.”

“What is worse is that the appointments are being made on a whimsical, capricious and arbitrary basis,” said Richard Gordon, a popular mayor whom Aquino dismissed from office in the northern city of Olongapo. “The point is the people are no longer being consulted as far as democratic will is concerned. And that is tragic.”

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The crux of all such criticism is Aquino’s decision not to hold local elections until after a new constitution is drafted by an appointed presidential committee and adopted by referendum. And she has hinted that the constitution may not be ready until next year.

Even Pimentel, who has been sharply criticized for carrying out the dismissals, said that he disagreed with the decision to put off the elections.

Defends Firings

But, during a brief visit to Zamboanga City last week intended to help defuse the crisis, Pimentel said, “It is important that we remove these people, whose sole purpose was to perpetuate Marcos’ power, and that we place people in local governments who believed in the programs of President Aquino from the time her presidential campaign began.”

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Aquino has argued that the battered Philippine economy cannot afford costly elections now. She went on the offensive in a television interview last week.

“Lately, there have been too many criticisms,” Aquino said of charges that her regime is becoming dictatorial. She again urged that Filipinos give her more time after so sudden a change in national leaders before they judge her administration.

But in an island nation as fragmented and decentralized as the Philippines, a change in national leadership has far less impact than changes among local governors and mayors--positions equivalent to the traditional island tribal chiefs who controlled such vital daily concerns as jobs, food distribution and village development projects.

Could Lose Support

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In Zamboanga City, for example, Marcos’ departure from Manila, 550 miles north of here, had little impact. It was only when Aquino announced that she planned to appoint a new mayor that the political crisis began, and, along with it, internecine political battles that threaten to shatter the delicate coalition of popular support that Aquino has in the region.

As in other areas where the Marcos opposition was strong, there are two prominent local politicians in Zamboanga City who worked hard for Aquino during the campaign leading up to the Feb. 7 elections.

Both former opposition leaders have a strong following, and if Pimentel appoints one as the new mayor, the other has pledged to withdraw support from Aquino.

“The problem becomes difficult where the same position is sought by two or more opposition leaders, and we definitely have a problem here,” Pimentel said before last week’s news conference in Zamboanga City. “On the one hand, we have a woman who has labored long and hard for her people and for President Aquino. On the other, we have a man who has given up his father to the cause.”

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Father a Legend

Jose Climaco, who goes by the nickname Rini, is the son of Zamboanga City’s most popular mayor. The father, Cesar, was a constant critic of Marcos and became a national legend after the president declared martial law in 1972.

Cesar Climaco often used his own money to build roads through town because Marcos pumped government funds into cities run by loyalist mayors.

Climaco traveled from house to house on his motorcycle solving local disputes. He built a huge tree house in a city park and donated it to the city’s homeless. And he blamed Marcos and the military for the city’s alarming crime rate--murders, rapes and burglaries often attributed by local police to government soldiers trying to discredit Climaco’s administration.

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The elder Climaco had vowed not to cut his hair until the Marcos reign ended, and he was sporting a snow-white mane more than three feet long when he was shot to death at point-blank range 18 months ago. His family and many local leaders suspect that military officials close to Marcos were responsible for the still-unsolved slaying.

Climaco’s son spent most of those years in the United States as a permanent resident of a suburb of St. Louis. Despite that, he now says that the popular support he inherited from his father is so strong that Aquino should appoint him mayor.

More Experienced

His chief opponent for the position, Delos Reyes, argues that the younger Climaco is simply trading on his father’s name, seeking political power for its own sake. She says he lacks the experience to revitalize the socially and economically troubled city.

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Throughout the tenure of the senior Climaco, Delos Reyes says, she served as his loyal, elected vice mayor, and even after Marcos appointed a loyalist to serve out Climaco’s term, Delos Reyes notes that she continued to fight the Marcos regime from within.

Although both Delos Reyes and Climaco have said that they will abide by Aquino’s decision, both also say that if they are not chosen, they would likely leave Aquino’s party and challenge her choice in the next election, whenever it is held.

“I have to continue this fight,” Delos Reyes said. “All Rini Climaco has going for him is his father’s name and his loyalty to Aquino.

“You know, we are a bunch of crazy people. I fought against the Marcoses because I hated that kind of cronyism. If I give way now, I’m just giving in to cronyism all over again. It will be just going from one set of crony characters to another.”

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Decision Delayed

Aquino’s minister, Pimentel, spent more than two hours with both contenders for the post during his recent trip to Zamboanga City--a trip meant to demonstrate the government’s concern over the controversy and to resolve it.

In fact, Pimentel had promised during his news conference here that he would announce the mayoral choice before 3 p.m. that day, when he was scheduled to leave for another city where a similar battle has been raging.

But at the airport, Pimentel just shook his head and said that no decision will be reached for at least another week.

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And that afternoon, there was another round of shooting at the city market, there were no tourists on the evening flight from Manila, and the sea gypsies continued to beg at the harbor front in Zamboanga City.


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