Juan Ponce Enrile, the powerful Philippine defense minister, had just finished a glass of brandy at a friend's house here in his home province 300 miles north of Manila last week when a dozen reporters from the Defense Ministry press corps burst into the room.
"Sir," one of the reporters asked, "is there any truth to the rumors in Manila?"
Enrile leaned forward, raised his eyebrows with genuine curiosity and replied, "What rumors?"
"Sir, they say you and your men are staging a coup against President (Corazon) Aquino in Manila."
Enrile fell back into his seat and laughed. "Boys, look at me. I'm drinking brandy with my friends. I'm hundreds of miles from Manila. Does this look like a coup to you?"
But then Enrile turned to three foreign journalists who had been chatting with him for two hours and said, "My God, this is really getting funny." And at that point, Enrile wasn't laughing.
Four months after Enrile and the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, led a military and civilian revolt that eventually drove President Ferdinand E. Marcos into exile, the controversial, 62-year-old defense minister has become the subject of seemingly endless speculation that he is plotting against the government he helped bring to power.
When coup rumors surfaced last week, they made front-page news in the Philippines and triggered a near-crisis in the government, forcing Aquino and Gen. Ramos both to issue statements denying that a coup was afoot and assuring the nation that all was well in the administration.
On Saturday, Aquino went out of her way to appear alongside Enrile at an anniversary celebration for the Philippine air force, smiling and loudly laughing off the rumors as a subversive attempt to discredit her government.
Finally, she turned to her audience and ad-libbed: "Actions speak louder than words. And what you see here today, I think you believe it rather than some unfavorable reports that we have been hearing or reading about."
Signs of Tension
Yet, behind last week's round of rumors and denials, there are indeed signs of rising tension between conservative and liberal members of Aquino's young government--between the civilian and military components of her administration--as well as significant changes in the political dynamics of a nation just recently freed from 20 years of dictatorship.
At the center of it all is Enrile, a shrewd, Harvard-educated lawyer and veteran politician who, in spite of his many recent declarations of unwavering support for Aquino and her civilian government, has also made it clear in the last week that his days in Philippine politics are far from over.
Enrile's ambition to some day be president was the subject of widespread speculation even before his role in last February's military and civilian revolt that toppled the Marcos regime. And, during Enrile's 36-hour trip to the far north of the main Philippine island of Luzon last week, he often acted more like a candidate than a loyal Cabinet member.
He appeared and spoke before packed crowds of cheering supporters, who greeted him with banners reading, "The Philippine MacArthur," "The Man of the Century" and "Enrile, We Are United for You." Local politicians once loyal to Marcos introduced Enrile with such phrases as "our idol," "champion of peace," "our new father," "a man for all seasons" and "a man fit to be president of the Philippines."
Enrile did little to push aside the adulation. When one local mayor addressed him as "Mr. President," Enrile quipped, "I am not the president yet."
In a speech to several hundred mayors and village leaders still deeply loyal to deposed President Marcos, Enrile deliberately avoided reminding them it was he who was responsible for Marcos' overthrow. Instead, he told the cheering crowd: "I do not accept the fact that I am a hero of the February revolution. The real hero was former President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos."
During a three-hour interview with The Times in his home province of Cagayan the night that coup rumors were rampant in Manila, Enrile was asked whether his trip to the northern provinces, among them Marcos' home province of Ilocos Norte, was not merely an attempt to build his personal political power base.
"Well," he replied, "if I run for a public office in Ilocandia, I know I will win by a substantial margin."
"Are you running for office?" he was asked.
"No," he said.
"Please," he said, laughing and winking. "Don't pin me down."
Such verbal bobbing and weaving, combined with Enrile's open support for a newly revived Nacionalista Party, has led many political analysts to speculate that, instead of a military coup, Enrile may be plotting a possible bid for either the national legislature or the presidency when the next elections are held, possibly as early as March, 1987.
Aquino has said several times recently that she does not intend to run for president again, and the 45-member presidential commission now drafting a new constitution could fix a date for presidential elections long ahead of the presumed expiration of Aquino's six-year term in 1992.
"I think it's clear that what Enrile is doing is consolidating his people," said Vic Aguillar, a veteran radio commentator in Laoag City, capital of Marcos' home province, during Enrile's visit there last week. "He knows he cannot afford to stage another military coup. So he's trying to do it by the book."
What is clear, though, is that Enrile already enjoys enormous political support in the populous and powerful northern Luzon region and that the political organization built over two decades by Marcos has now thrown its support behind Enrile.
Change in Strategy
In a major change in strategy, the leaders of a movement that had been demonstrating in Manila for months, calling for the Aquino government to let Marcos return to the Philippines, announced last week that it was abandoning its effort to bring Marcos back and concentrating its forces behind Enrile.
Every day since last Thursday, the Marcos loyalists have staged street demonstrations outside Camp Aguinaldo, the military base where Enrile's office is situated and the site of the February uprising against Marcos. During similar demonstrations while that revolt was in progress, anti-Marcos forces helped protect Enrile from Marcos' tanks and soldiers.
Enrile and Aquino both denounced the Marcos supporters' switch, branding it a deliberate attempt to destabilize Aquino's fledgling government. And both leaders said they believe that those same pro-Marcos forces were behind the rumors that Enrile was about to mount another coup.
Marcos Role Seen
"Marcos is probably behind all this," Aquino told reporters in denying the rumors on Thursday. "So let him have his little fun."
At the same time, Enrile was telling reporters in Tuguegarao, "I wanted to come to the Ilocos region specifically to remove this so-called loyalist group of ex-President Marcos that has been trying to undermine this government."
When reporters noted that the net effect of his trip, though, was to shift that support from Marcos to himself, Enrile said: "I'm part of this government. I'd rather win these forces and try to contain them than allow them to fight this government."
Rudolfo Farinas, the intensely pro-Marcos mayor of Laoag, told Enrile during a speech, "Please don't forsake us if we consider you our new father in this region."
Enrile responded: "I will simply go back to Manila and tell President Aquino, 'Ma'am, I'm the new father of Ilocos Norte. I deliver to you my child.' "
Yet, even Enrile concedes there is a good deal of truth to reports of deepening philosophical differences between him and many of the left-leaning members of Aquino's government.
In the last week, Enrile has openly differed with Aquino on such issues as the two large American military bases in the Philippines and on the pending cease-fire negotiations between the government and leaders of the bloody, 17-year Communist insurgency that is still growing nationwide.
Regarding the U.S. bases, Aquino has carefully avoided taking a position, beyond promising to submit to a national referendum the question of whether the bases should be allowed to remain here beyond 1991, when the current agreement expires. Many of her closest advisers are known to oppose keeping the bases here.
Favors U.S. Bases
Addressing a church group in Manila last week, Enrile clearly took issue with the bases' opponents, saying: "Whether we like it or not, these military bases will be here far beyond this present administration--even more than 10 years. If anybody is willing to gamble with me, I will take all bets."
More perplexing has been the position of Enrile and of his still-heavily armed Defense Ministry security force--the colonels and majors who actually carried out the February revolt against Marcos--on the subject of the Communist insurgency.
Enrile insists that he supports Aquino's bid to negotiate a cease-fire with the leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing, the New People's Army. But he quickly adds, "There are no easy solutions" to the conflict, which he says he believes is based not on the issue of economic injustice, as Aquino and her advisers have said, but on "the simple desire for power."
"I have no doubt the government is sincere in its efforts" to negotiate peace with the rebels, Enrile said. "But let us not pin all our hopes on this effort. If something good comes out of it, so be it. But it is better we should approach it cautiously.
"Believe me, the first people who would want peace in the land are the men in uniform, because it is they who are at the front of the struggle," he added. "It is they who must be killed before we will be killed. But we are realistic enough to know that what appears to be an easy solution is not always a possible solution."
Members of Enrile's close-in security group were far more blunt in their criticism of Aquino's strategy for ending the war in the countryside.
Speaking on the condition that they not be identified by name, several of the colonels loyal to Enrile sharply chided Aquino and her Cabinet for not developing a firm policy toward the insurgency.
They said she was "foolish" for not including any military representatives in a negotiating team she is setting up to represent the government in peace talks. And they went still further, suggesting that several members of the Cabinet may be Communist sympathizers and hinting that last week's coup rumors were actually fueled by liberal Cabinet members trying to discredit Enrile.
"We don't know who the enemy is anymore," one colonel said. "Maybe he is there in Cabinet Hill."
Saying that the military has not yet been consulted by the Aquino government as the civilian administration develops its counterinsurgency strategy, the colonel added: "The situation remains no different than it was before, under Marcos. We (the military) are still poised on that slippery slope, at the bottom of which is military dictatorship."
Still, the dissident colonels insist that no coup is in the works, and they vowed to give Aquino "another six months or a year" before they would even ponder any such action.
For his part, Enrile has gone far out of his way to stress that he still considers himself a loyal member of the Aquino Cabinet.
"Regardless of our political differences," Enrile told the crowd in Marcos' home province, "let us for the moment stand up for this government so we can stabilize the country. . . . Our first priority of government must be to re-establish political stability in the land."
Later, in the interview, Enrile said: "Really, I am just doing all this to help President Aquino, and I think the president knows that what I'm doing is solely in the interest of the government.
"Why should I stage a coup? For what? My God, maybe what I should do is just imprison myself in a cage."
Finally, Enrile was asked what he would do if Aquino fired him as defense minister.
"Ah," Enrile said. "If I am kicked out of the ministry, I would simply go back to a private life. I probably would teach law; practice law; I'd watch the situation, and just go and live a peaceful, quiet life."