As his sister the president watched from behind, and his brother-in-law the senator worked the crowd, Philippine Congressman Jose Cojuangco Jr. appealed to several thousand hometown voters here last week for a new political order, free from nepotism and patronage.
"We should not bring back the old system of patronage politics or, in the future, we will have another Marcos," Cojuangco declared, referring to Ferdinand E. Marcos, the authoritarian ruler whom he and his sister, President Corazon Aquino, helped to overthrow two years ago. "That is what this election is about. . . . The choice is, do we want the old system or the new system?"
For Aquino's critics, there was a deep irony in the scene on the makeshift stage in a downtown park in this, the president's childhood family home.
In the last few days before Monday's crucial local elections, critics have charged that the president and her politically powerful younger brother are simply following the age-old Philippine tradition of dynastic politics, backing a nationwide slate of candidates to whom, with few exceptions, family and owed favors are more important than good government.
But, when her brother had finished, Aquino took center stage and, in an extemporaneous speech, said that her best defense against such charges is here in her home province of Tarlac, where she is supporting an apolitical businessman known for his honesty and management skills over the gubernatorial recommendations of her brother, brother-in-law and top political lieutenants.
"My enemies say, Cory is weak, Cory is soft," the president told the crowd. "But no one has ever said Cory is a thief. No one says Cory is corrupt. . . . As long as I live, what Cory will do is not just for the town of Paniqui, for the province of Tarlac, but for the entire Philippines."
But dynasty and the evils of Philippine politics-past are not the only important issues at stake Monday, when more than 20 million Filipino voters stream to the polls to elect more than 15,000 governors, mayors and city councilmen nationwide in the first local elections to be held here in seven years.
President Aquino has called the elections a key, grass-roots political exercise, the latest political move to bring stability to her troubled nation.
On Monday, voters will be replacing the entire network of pro-Marcos local officials that Aquino fired en masse two years ago in an effort to consolidate her power after the popular and military revolt that overthrew Marcos.
Military authorities have stressed that the election itself will help them fight the nation's growing Communist insurgency. The elections, they say, will bring the first semblance of effective local government in two years to the nation's 73 largely rural provinces, where the insurgency has been worsening in recent years because the government has failed for the most part to deliver basic services to the people.
But political analysts here also have been speculating that there may be a darker side to the elections. Already, more than 75 candidates and campaign workers have been hacked, stabbed or shot to death. More than a dozen others have been kidnaped by Communist guerrillas trying to influence the polls. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the armed forces chief of staff, deployed a special force of more than 2,000 soldiers nationwide this weekend to keep order on election day.
Several experts have said that the violence is a grim indication that the old family political dynasties are using power politics to force their way back into control, and that, they say, is bound to leave bitterness and deep divisions.
The analysts also noted that Aquino, who had promised sweeping democratic reforms during her own 1986 presidential campaign against Marcos, has formed political alliances with some of the most powerful and feared of Marcos' henchmen in an apparent effort to gain more political control.
And, although her personal image remains untarnished, political activists and religious leaders have voiced deep concern that the way this campaign has gone is yet another sign that the Philippine nation may be going backward rather than forward.
Nation Is 'in Reverse'
"I think someone has shifted the gears of the Philippine ship of state," said Rudolfo Farinas, a 36-year-old gubernatorial candidate in Marcos' home province of Ilocos Norte. "Instead of forward, I think we're in reverse."
Farinas, who remains a Marcos supporter, is being backed by one faction of Aquino's ruling coalition, while Aquino and her brother are backing the 80-year-old mother of Marcos kingpin Congressman Roque Ablan.
In interviews nationwide, Roman Catholic bishops and priests have chided the president for failing to keep her promise to select new, younger and more professional faces as administration candidates for local office, to help end a decades-old standard of corrupt politics set under Marcos and half a dozen Philippine presidents before him.
Cardinal Jaime Sin, the nation's influential Roman Catholic primate, has appealed publicly several times in recent weeks for an end to the killings and to the politics of dynasty and firepower. He has also appealed to candidates not to pay for votes. But already political experts say that millions of dollars have been paid by candidates throughout the country, and widespread fraud is expected on election day.
Barometer of Progress
In short, the elections are being viewed by many Filipinos as a barometer of the nation's progress in its two years under Aquino, and as an exercise that will help set the standard by which Aquino will be replaced when her term expires in 1992. Aquino has said she will not run for another term.
Aquino's brother-in-law, Agapito Aquino, who was elected in a landslide to the Philippine Senate last May, said in an interview last week that the chaos and mayhem that have accompanied the 45-day election campaign are all normal signs of national transition.
"I think what we are doing right now is we are still looking for that new politics," Agapito Aquino said. "I think more and more people are shifting from traditional politics to new politics. But that transition is very slow, just like any change."
Sen. Aquino, who is seen by many analysts as one of many possible successors to his sister-in-law in four years, conceded that all national political leaders are using the local polls to help build grass-roots political machinery for their own presidential bids in 1992.
'Everybody Is Preparing'
"I suppose everybody is protecting or expanding their turfs," he said "Everybody is preparing."
And he added that some of his family members and close family friends are "abusing this connection" in seeking local offices Monday. "Even my mother said, 'Enough is enough,' " Agapito Aquino noted.
Asked whether his brother-in-law, Congressman Cojuangco, was sincere in his appeal for a new political order last week, the senator added, "He would like that. But how much would he like to sacrifice? He's also a very pragmatic politician. What we want is to be principled in our pragmatism."
Among the harshest of the critics who contend that pragmatism has been winning out over principles is longtime Aquino supporter Jovito R. Salonga, who is now president of the Philippine Senate.
In a press conference last Monday, Salonga charged that Congressman Cojuangco and Agapito Aquino have both been playing dynasty politics, and he cited the candidacy of several presidential relatives and in-laws throughout the country to make his point.
Old Practices Unwanted
"We did not suffer 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship only to see the return of the same practices of Marcos," Salonga said of the former president, who had appointed his wife, Imelda, to three key government posts and made his sister and son governors of his home province.
In a direct challenge to Aquino's ruling family, Salonga--who flatly denied widespread speculation that he, too, is using the local polls to prepare for a 1992 presidential bid as head of the country's Liberal Party--is fielding entire slates of candidates against the president's in several provinces.
And Salonga blasted ruling-family alliances with former pro-Marcos political leaders, such as that in Ilocos Norte, as pragmatism that goes well beyond principle.
Such alliances have created the most unlikely political bedfellows. Aquino's brother, for example, is indirectly supporting a renegade military colonel who is campaigning for the deputy governorship of Ilocos Norte via a telephone in his jail cell. The colonel is being held on charges of trying to overthrow the Aquino government four times last year.
The Aquino family's party also is backing Ramon Durano for mayor in Danao, where Durano has reigned as a pro-Marcos warlord for decades.
Experts in the intricate and clannish Philippine politics believe that Aquino's family strategists have simply sought out the key candidates that they thought would win and asked them to join the administration ticket. But that view has not silenced the critics.
"We continue to support the Aquino administration," Salonga said. "But we cannot be blind to the errors that are being committed in our midst."
Aquino herself has responded to the accusations by telling voters that it is up to them to decide whether to accept or reject the candidates she supports.
"Why don't we just allow the people to decide who they think are the best candidates in the coming elections?" she asked.
New Political Order
Although supporters such as her brother-in-law do concede that many of the ruling family's alliances are aimed primarily at building Aquino's support at the grass-roots level, the president stressed last week that she has drawn the line in several provinces where she hopes to send the message of a new political order to the voters.
Providing a rare glimpse of how back-room Philippine politics works, Aquino used her speech in Paniqui to tell her fellow Tarlacanos in detail how she chose their leading gubernatorial candidate.
First, she said, her brother came to her and recommended a seasoned local politician that he knew the Aquino family could trust. Then, her brother-in-law made his recommendation--another veteran political leader and Aquino loyalist. Finally, the province's third political kingpin, Jose Yap, told the president that she should support Candido Guiam, the acting governor whom Aquino had appointed to the post when she fired the pro-Marcos governor 20 months ago.
"In my estimation, any one of them was possible," the president told the crowd. "But I was looking for the best one, and I was the one who told the leaders to look for another one.
'A Man I Can Trust'
"In Tarlac, my own province, I needed to search for and choose a governor who is really a good administrator and a man I can trust to be honest and make this province the best in the country."
Finally, Aquino settled on Mar Ocampo, a banker, a professional administrator, a man with a reputation for impeccable honesty and a political unknown.
But Aquino added that she had to pay her personal visit to the province last week to stress that she was, indeed, supporting Ocampo and not Guiam, who has quietly been spreading the word that Aquino is secretly backing him.
Aquino left no doubt of her preference during her speech. She publicly charged Guiam with breaking the law by signing more than $250,000 in public vouchers several days after he had resigned as acting governor to campaign last month.
In further boosting the candidacy of Ocampo, Aquino likened the soft-spoken, 53-year-old banker to herself.
"Mar, like me, is a quiet person and not a politician--he doesn't know how to smile and greet people," the president said. "But he's learning.
"When I was not in politics, I was shy. I was not used to a lot of people around. But that's easy to learn if your heart is in the right place."