A plot by a group of military officers to alter the government of Philippine President Corazon Aquino - just short of a coup d''etat - appears to be a subplot of a larger script by the military to test the limits of its power. The rapid collapse of the Marcos regime last February after 20 years of rule has forced the nation to come to grips quickly with the role of the 140,000-member Armed Forces of the Philippines.
That role was left unclear by the military's nonviolent ouster of then-President Ferdinand Marcos and by the sudden rise of liberal - some say leftist - leaders within the new Aquino government.
While there is a serious clash of perspectives between the anticommunist military and the liberal Aquino government on how to handle a communist insurgency, the deeper issue is how the military fits into Philippine society, a number of Western diplomats say.
The nine years of martial law (1972-81) under Mr. Marcos and the aftermath, when only one party dominated the nation, ruptured the traditional pattern of Philippine politics that existed from independence after World War II until 1972.
That pattern, largely a caricature of American democracy with Filipino traits, put an elite - made up of wealthy, family-connected groups in competition only with one another - at the top of a two-party system run largely on patronage, pork-barreling, and promises in a nation of poor peasants. While local police were often used by local politicians, the military remained largely apolitical.
Under Marcos, however, the military was expanded and refocused to protect both the business interests of his associates and Marcos himself, with lesser priority given to waging war on communism. It also grew increasingly corrupt.
Now, says one European diplomat, ``The military doesn't know what structure of government it fits into.''
The dilemma goes beyond the personal row between Mrs. Aquino and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, who served in the same post under Marcos and who has challenged both the legitimacy of her presidency and her strategy of negotiating with the outlawed Communist Party.
Rather, the crisis of recent weeks, when an Enrile-led group of officers known as RAM (Reform the Armed Forces Movement) plotted to remove leftist ministers, came about for two reasons.
The first reason is an apparent power vacuum.
Aquino has displayed little of the aggressive leadership of past Filipino presidents, and her ministers have been slow to implement reforms and projects. Complaints are common in the government that Aquino's executive secretary, Joker Arroyo, has failed to act on dozens of plans awaiting presidential direction. This bottleneck has led to a perceived paralysis of government and charges that Aquino is weak.
Aquino is also seen by many in the military as lenient - because of her reluctance to punish the few officers and several hundred soldiers who took over the Manila Hotel in July in a three-day revolt of Marcos loyalists. ``She should have come down hard on those guys,'' says Deputy Defense Minister Rafael Ileto. ``Now she is paying for it.''
The result, says one American scholar on the Philippines, follows an old rule: ``If you don't use power, you lose it.'' The military, he says, perceives this, and - using a base of public good will from last February - follows another ``old rule'' of politics: ``The more you use power, the more you get.''
``The military doesn't have much power,'' the scholar says, ``but they have created the illusion of power by leaking reports of coup plots to a few ... newspapers and thus testing the capabilities of Aquino. That's simple military strategy.''
The result during Aquino's trip to Japan this week was high drama. Leftist aides secured themselves in the presidential palace, the symbol of power here, while rumors flew that the military might cut city power, close news outlets, and cordon off the city. Some diplomats even speculate that the palace had been bugged by the military to gain evidence that some Aquino aides had communist links.
On Aquino's return tomorrow, military obervers expect her to test her authority by directly confronting RAM. The main constraint on RAM has been a widespread desire of many officers and of Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos to follow the US model of civilian authority over the military.
``There's real tension [in the military] between the professionals and those who want to use power to correct the politicians,'' says a retired member of RAM. ``Any action against Aquino would mean bloodshed within the military first.''
Another indication of a power vacuum is the rise in the number of reports that local military units have become closely aligned with local wealthy elites. On the sugar-producing island of Negros, home of the ``sugar barons,'' for instance, many plantation owners have made private ``donations'' to the Police Constabulatory. This form so-called ``warlordism'' had been held in check by Marcos's one-party state. Under Aquino, few controls exist.
The second reason for the crisis is a general fear of communism. Despite Aquino's attempts to improve military effectiveness, many officers and soldiers are concerned about her call for a ``defensive posture'' against the insurgents, the outcome of cease-fire talks with the rebels, and the possibility that some of her officials are allowing communists to infiltrate the government.
``The historical reaction to rebellion in the Philippines is to simply crush it, rather than deal with the basic causes,'' says the American scholar.
Slowly, Mr. Enrile has begun to create public support for a strong anticommunist policy that undercuts Aquino's strategy of reconciliation. Anticommunist groups have sprung up both within the middle class and among peasants.
The military, already upset by official probes of alleged human rights abuses, claims it is suffering a higher rate of casualties in clashes with insurgents than the rebels are. Like many in the military, Enrile believes the cease-fire talks will fail, and when they do, the military will have wide public support for an all-out war against the insurgents. Aquino will be forced to go along, according to this strategy, further boosting the military's power within the government. ``This will make Aquino's control over the military more tenable,'' says a US diplomat.