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Manila: security and grass-roots political activism

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PHILIPPINE President Corazon Aquino has been in office for more than a year, yet she continues to shy away from organizing a grass-roots political party. It could be a miscalculation. By forming a party, Mrs. Aquino might begin to mobilize a constituency for some of the sensitive tasks she has vowed to accomplish, such as enacting land reform, promoting rural development, and restructuring the military. Without a political organization, Aquino will have to build support for reforms, one by one. To date, Aquino has left the job of organizing to her advisers, especially her brother and former campaign manager, Jos'e Cojuangco Jr., who heads a loosely structured support group called Lakas Ng Bansa, or Power of the Nation. She has rejected Mr. Cojuangco's advice to transform Lakas into a legitimate party.

This decision is in part a consequence of Aquino's distaste for glad-handing and back-room dealing. A reticent woman, she admits that she has never been comfortable with the business of politics.

Since coming to power, Aquino has steered clear of partisan squabbles, preferring to let her advisers battle over the issues and take the heat during crises. The President knows that she is in a unique position. She has been likened to Joan of Arc by the country's highly respected Roman Catholic Archbishop, Jaime Cardinal Sin, who has also called her ``everybody's role model.'' She is regarded with nearly religious awe by millions of her countrymen.

Popular though Aquino may be, it is still important to consider whether she can continue to ``live by prayers and govern by miracles,'' as one of her leading critics, Blas Ople, recently asked.

Perhaps not. The ratification recently of a new Philippine constitution, while widely seen as an important victory for Aquino, will lead, paradoxically, to a diminution of her power. The new charter vests a 24-seat Senate and 250-seat House of Representatives with the authority to write the laws of the land. The President's ability to make decrees formally ends when Congress convenes six weeks after national elections are held May 11.

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