The current controversy between President Corazon Aquino and her outspoken defense minister, Juan Ponce Enrile, now joined by her vice president, Salvador Laurel, masks an issue more fundamental than normal jockeying for political influence. The issue is Aquino's ability to govern the Philippines.
The Philippines today, after eight months of a new government and following Aquino's triumphal visit to the United States, is like poet William Blake's "darkling plain" where "confused armies pass by night." The country is beset by confusion created by political indecision and fueled continuously by the Manilan rumor mills at the service of various factions. As one Western diplomat put it, "If you are not confused, then you don't understand the situation."
The confusion is deliberate. Smoke and mirrors are important weapons in the ongoing struggle for power initiated by Aquino's ascendancy to the presidency last February as political forces bottled up during the Ferdinand E. Marcos years were unleashed. This new "democratic space," in which interests fight for political ascendancy, especially as the date nears for local and national elections, is a normal part of the transition to democracy.
Aquino has deliberately encouraged this process, standing above the political fray, refusing to form her own political party or to endorse anyone. But her approach is uniting her opposition while fragmenting her supporters.
Enrile is frustrated for several reasons.
First, he is ambitious. By the time of the next presidential election he will be 68, too old to lead the new generation now emerging into power. If he wants to be president or become a political kingpin he has to act now before the new constitution legalizing Aquino's term has been ratified and before the elections institutionalizing the new political parties.
Second, as things stand now he has no role to play. He is treated just as he was by Marcos: a minister without a ministry, untrusted by the president and by her advisers.
Third, he is frustrated, as are many Filipinos, by the government's inability to govern. His attacks concerning the competency of many in the Aquino cabinet and on the government's (and, incidentally, his own) inability to develop a comprehensive program for countering the communist insurgency are widely applauded even by Aquino's closest allies. Enrile perceives weakness at the center, and, like any political animal, he cannot help but tear at his president's jugular.
Both American and Filipino observers see the current controversy purely as a mano-a-mano test between Aquino and Enrile, but forcing Enrile's resignation will not resolve the more critical issue of the government's ability to govern. Aside from a handful of cabinet officials, mainly economic technocrats, no one, either in the palace or in the cabinet, has been able to define national goals, design a program for reform and implement it.
Even the military has not been able to make a clear statement of objectives that could be translated into tactical concepts. The army has no idea of how to root out the communist infrastructure and replace it with a government one. The military lacks a province-by-province approach for recovering barangays lost to the communists.
The palace also is not managing the government. Aquino is isolated by a few key advisers and kept busy performing ritual functions such as giving luncheon speeches for service societies. No one is holding cabinet ministers accountable for their programs. The palace staff is intent at concentrating power without knowing how to use it. Thus, all decisions, even minor issues, are referred to the palace, resulting in indecision.
The Philippines is a traditional society trying to modernize, but inertia still is a powerful force. Much of this chaos would matter little over the short term if the nation's problems were not so serious. The Communist Party is the only well-organized interest group, which incidentally has its own army. This issue alone makes time of the essence.
It is too early to pass judgment on Aquino's ability to govern. The next few months before the local and national elections will decide this issue. If she cannot provide direction and leadership, the country will fragment into competing factions, and political immobility will result. Then the possibility of a military coup will be real. The outcome will only benefit the communists.
These are fundamentally Filipino problems. There is little that the United States can do to affect the outcome other than to make clear that we would not support efforts to destabilize the Aquino government. This we have done both publicly and privately. A more forceful response from Washington, with a statement by President Reagan or Secretary of State George P. Shultz, would only create additional controversy in Manila, perhaps encouraging the very situation that we wish to avoid.
The future of the Philippines is in Philippine hands. After years of involvement, the United States has come to recognize this principle. Now Filipinos have to learn the same lesson.