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Test of Term Limits: Filipinos Try To Deny President a Second Shot

Catholic leader wants to make sure lame-duck president can't run in May poll. Ramos backers seek a change in the Constitution.

Eleven years after overthrowing a dictator and becoming a model for democracy in Asia, the Philippines seems to be fighting the same old battle.

The elected president, Fidel Ramos, is hardly a copy of the late Ferdinand Marcos, even though he was once a top general for the dictator. But his supporters want to amend the Constitution to allow him to run again.

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His opponents, as in Marcos's days, have taken to the streets and airwaves. Making sure he doesn't run - despite his word that he won't - has become a hot-button issue for a mix of groups, including the powerful Roman Catholic Church.

They would like the Protestant leader to leave when his one-term, six-year presidency ends on June 30, 1998.

To help make sure Mr. Ramos won't run, the Catholic Church and big business have thrown their support to one of his former military colleagues, the quiet if not highly distinguished outgoing defense secretary, Renato de Villa, to be the next president.

Many Filipinos remain spooked by the specter of the long Marcos dictatorship. Marcos, elected in 1965 as president, declared martial law in 1972 when he could not extend his term. He ruled virtually unchallenged for 24 years before he was overthrown in a popular revolt in 1986 - led in part by Ramos.

The 1987 Constitution written after Corazon Aquino restored democracy and became president is designed to restrict future leaders to only a single term. Suggestions to amend the Constitution to allow Ramos a second term have triggered fears that democracy is again under threat.

Analysts say two strong opponents to the charter change, Mrs. Aquino and the outspoken archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, are supporting de Villa as a way to stop Ramos. Both appeared at a recent birthday party for de Villa. In Asia's predominantly Catholic nation, Cardinal Sin can play a crucial role in politics.

Big business firms, which normally give large amounts to all the candidates at election time as a hedge, have begun contributing toward de Villa's campaign. They see him continuing Ramos's policy of economic liberalization that have brought unprecedented stability and growth to this fractious nation of 72 million people.

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Church leaders see the former general as morally upright and untainted by scandal. De Villa will step down on Sept. 15 after five years as defense secretary to concentrate on his presidential campaign.

A move by Ramos supporters to rally support to amend the charter by collecting 6 million signatures was defeated when the Supreme Court ruled recently that there was no enabling law to carry out a charter change that way.

His lieutenants' fallback position was to lobby Congress to turn itself into a constituent assembly which can then amend the charter. The lower house began tumultuous debates in late August. Antichange congressmen walked out. An anti-change lobby group rammed a truck through the house's steel gates in protest.

Vice President Joseph Estrada, a popular former movie actor, is leading the polls and could be the most serious challenger to de Villa, who fares poorly in public opinion. Mr. Estrada is not acceptable to the church, however, because of his admitted past record of drinking and womanizing.

The business community is horrified by the idea of an Estrada presidency. He is ridiculed for his alleged poor command of English and poorer grasp of economic issues.

De Villa has been a close associate of Ramos. Both men are so alike in their career path and even demeanor (unexciting) that de Villa is sometimes derisively described as a Ramos "clone."

A 1957 graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, de Villa served in the defunct Police Constabulary. Like Ramos, he also served in the Vietnam and Korean Wars when the Philippines contributed troops as an American ally.

Being labeled a clone does not bother him. "We are two different persons," de Villa said recently in an interview. But, "If I can do the same and if I can do more, I will be a successful president," he added in typical lack of bravura.

Ramos himself has given conflicting signals on his intentions. While he repeatedly disclaims any interest in staying on in office, he does not stop his lieutenants from pushing for charter change.

Sin, in desperate moves, issued a pastoral letter urging Filipinos to withdraw support from Ramos. He warned that efforts to amend the Constitution "might be the beginning of a bloody revolution."

That scenario is improbable. But the statement reflects the fear of the pro-democracy forces that tinkering with the charter will open a Pandora's box and lead the way backward to the dark days of one-man rule they used to know.

Sin and Aquino have called for a huge rally on Sept. 21 - the anniversary of Marcos's martial law - to deliver the message to Ramos.

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