The air of expectation was palpable last week outside the gates at the presidential Malacañang Palace in the capital city of Manila. Participants arriving for a specially scheduled Cabinet meeting and a caucus of the ruling New Society Movement (K.B.L.) began queuing up at the palace an hour and a half early. At last, Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos called on his ministers to endorse their main item of business: Cabinet Bill No. 7, a call for elections to choose a President and Vice President on Jan. 17, 1986, 16 months ahead of schedule. The order was approved within seconds.
Moments later, at the caucus meeting in Malacañang's ornate ceremonial reception salon, Marcos placed the same election bill before some 500 of his governing elite. "We must submit ourselves to a fresh mandate," he declared. One caucus member objected. Why not wait, he asked, until regularly scheduled presidential elections could take place in 1987? Replied Marcos: "This exercise is needed." The caucus promptly endorsed the election call and authorized Marcos to choose his running mate "in accordance with political traditions in democratic countries." The delegates also passed on the order for new elections to the 200-member National Assembly, where the K.B.L. enjoys a nearly two-thirds majority, for consideration this week. The meeting broke up cheerfully as Marcos invited everyone to lunch.
Thus the wily Philippine leader wrapped up the loose ends in an extraordinary new political gambit that he had first unveiled five days earlier. Appearing on ABC-TV's This Week with David Brinkley, Marcos had startled almost everyone when he declared his willingness to call a snap election "right now." Said Marcos: "I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready." After the program, the Philippine leader stated his preference for Jan. 17 balloting, which would also mark the fifth anniversary of the dissolution of the 1972 martial-law proclamation that began his era of authoritarian rule. Two days later, despite earlier denials, he declared that the balloting would include the vice-presidential contest, reactivating an office that Marcos has kept vacant since 1973 to discourage presidential ambitions among his subordinates. On a rapid foray into the countryside, the President defined the essence of the upcoming campaign in a single word. "The issue," he declared, "is Marcos."
In fact, the issue is the future of the Philippines. With one stroke, Marcos had plunged his 7,000-island archipelago and its 54 million people into a new period of political uncertainty. Did his announcement herald a long-awaited democratic solution for a country that is simultaneously being choked by Marcos' brand of authoritarianism and threatened by a growing Communist insurgency? Or was it just a ploy to fend off the anti-Marcos criticism that has reached a new crescendo in the streets of Manila and the corridors of Washington?
The answers were far from clear. In the confusion that followed the TV announcement, a U.S. official in Washington remarked that Marcos' decision had "taken everybody by surprise: us, the [Philippine] opposition, even his own inner circle."