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Funhouse politics in the Philippines

Revolution in the Philippines, by Fred Poole and Max Vanzi. New York: McGraw-Hill. 357 pp. $18.95. To place the recent, sometimes tragic events in the Philippines in their proper perspective, it is essential, according to the authors of ``Revolution in the Philippines,'' to bear in mind that for 48 years this Asian nation enjoyed a singular status as America's only major overseas colony. Granted its independence on July 4, 1946, the Philippine nation was endowed with a system of democratic laws and institutions closely modeled after those governing life in the United States.

Democracy flourished in the island nation until 1972, when the twice-elected President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, declared martial law, suspended the Constitution, disbanded the Philippine houses of Congress, and imposed strict limits on the jurisdiction of the nation's Supreme Court. The struggle of the Philippine people to reassert the prerogatives of democracy has reached a particularly crucial stage in the months following the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, as democratic reformers, exiled politicians, and communist insurgents all compete to orchestrate the growing popular discontent with the Marcos regime.

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In this timely and informative book, journalist Max Vanzi, UPI bureau chief for Southeast Asia, and Fred Poole, an experienced writer on Philippine affairs, attempt to clarify the various political, social, and economic forces that have brought the Philippines to this most perilous moment in its short history as an independent nation. The Philippine foreign debt stands at a staggering $25.6 billion, poverty and unemployment are at precedent-setting levels, mass antigovernment protests occur with increasing frequency, and the New People's Army, which is leading the only growing communist rebellion in Asia, continues to gain ground and enlist new fighters for its cause.

Subtitled ``The United States in a Hall of Cracked Mirrors,'' the book fixes a large measure of the blame for the deteriorating political and economic situation in the Philippines on the Reagan administration, which has reversed the policy of previous American governments by fostering cordial relations with President Marcos. Without American support, Vanzi and Poole argue, it is unlikely that the much-criticized Marcos regime would have been able to sustain itself in power throughout the course of the 12 tumultuous months since the Aquino assassination.

A funhouse hall of mirrors forms the book's central metaphor. It is meant to convey the bewildering refractions of personality and policy that have crippled the Philippine economy, sent hundreds of thousands marching into the streets to demand a return to democracy, and hindered the US government's ability to formulate a constructive and consistent policy toward the people and government of a former American colonial dependent.

The lone constant in the ever-shifting Philippine panorama is Ferdinand Marcos, who has ruled the country for nearly two decades. Beginning with his rise to prominence as the eldest son of a local politician from one of the Philippines' most destitute regions, the book closely follows the career of the Philippine President. Using flattery, intimidation, and razor-sharp political instincts, Marcos rose quickly into the highest echelons of the Philippine government before winning election as President at the age of 48 in 1965.

His tenure has been marked by the gradual disintegration of the democratic institutions the Americans helped build, and by what the authors characterize as Marcos's megalomaniacal drive to humble the Philippines' old moneyed families and bring the entire machinery of government into the hands of the chief executive.

His relatives and childhood friends, many of whom now hold high government office, are portrayed as ruthless privy councillors who use their government sinecures to advance the political ambitions and enlarge the personal fortunes of the President.

Relentless in its criticism of the current regime, the authors suggest that the Philippines is poised on the brink of a political ``cataclysm'' that will sweep Marcos from power and place in jeopardy the long-term security of America's two most important military bases in Asia -- the naval outpost at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base, both of which are located on the main Philippine island of Luzon.

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Finding parallels with the current situation in El Salvador, Poole and Vanzi speculate that misguided policies and government terror in the Philippines have galvanized public support for extremist solutions. Yet, the book's main premise -- that the predatory politics and autocratic tactics of the Marcos regime have nullified all hope of revitalizing Philippine democracy in the future -- is refuted by recent events in the Asian archipelago. The legislative elections held in May, in which 40 percent of the seats were won by democratic opposition parties, offer substantial evidence that moderate forces committed to democratic ideals, groups whose popular appeal is understated by the book's authors, may well prevail in the post-Marcos era in the Philippines.

Still, the complexity of the situation in the Philippines, and the book's penetrating insights into the rivalries, intrigues, and vendettas that enliven the political life in this Asian nation, make ``Revolution in the Philippines'' an important and valuable book. Flawed by its polemical conclusions rather than inaccuracy in reporting, the book is a revealing portrait of a troubled nation on the precipice of change.

Peter Fuhrman is a free-lance writer living in New York.

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