Last night was probably the last rally of his first campaign in six years, so former Sen. Francisco Rodrigo poured out the fire and frustration of the Philippine opposition to 4,000 people packed into a basketball court in the ramshackle suburb of Las Pinas.
The theme, as always, was President Ferdinand Marcos, perhaps Asia's canniest politician, sitting in his palace miles away, probably deciding how his new experiment in Democracy will end.
"This campaign is like Marcos coming out to fight in round one, shadow boxing a little and declaring a victory," Rodrigo said.
The crowd laughed. They stood on the dirt court wearing T-shirts and jeans in the warm evening air. They sought glimpses of the family of political prisoner and opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, the unseen star of the show.
If this strange campaign had any other justifications than Marcos' need to impress the U.S. Congress, it was this curiosity and laughter and exuberant oratory, an old, beloved island sport that Marcos knows Filipinos have missed during 5 1/2 years of martial law.
Friday, registered voters among the 44 million people of this former American colony will cast ballots for an interim national assembly, a body with almost no powers under Marcos' continuing one-man rule.
But the election makes Marcos look better to the U.S. senators who he hopes will approve a new, lucrative agreement on bases this year or next. It has led him to take a dangerous chance by letting his chief political enemy, Aquino, run for the assembly from a jail cell, a sure magnet for that two-edged sword, the foreign press.
Marcos welcomes reporting of a campaign full of remarkably free expression of opinion for a country under one-man rule. But he must also suffer the image of a ruthless manipulator if his Movement for a New Society (KBL) slate wins every assembly seat, as many here expect.
Filipinos are waiting to see if resentment toward martial law, sympathy for Aquino and Marcos' self-confidence are great enough both to win some opposition candidates enough votes for election and to persuade Marcos' handpicked election commission to count all those votes.
"The president is trying to put on a good show. Many people feel that he doesn't want an overkill," said Toto Olivera, 68, a press secretary to the late President Ramon Magsaysay. Olivera was also a martial law victim, jailed for two months in 1974.
Oliver was locked away because a Marcos aide took offense at his luncheon speech joke about the Marcos-dominated supreme court as a "court of last assent." The revival of political humor in his campaign has again brought sour reactions from the Marcos camp, but no jailings.
Of the 165 contested assembly seats (Marcos' place as prime minister is guaranteed), the opposition has been able to organize a full slate of candidates only in greater Manila. The 21 opposition campaigners headed by Aquino are running against 21 Marcos slate members headed by Manila Governor Imelda Marcos, the president's wife.
Both Marcoses serve as butts for jokes. For example:
"The guard at Malacanang Palace asked the visitor what he wanted. 'I've come to kill President Marcos,' the man said. 'What? I couldn't hear you,' the guard replied.
"I've come to kill President Marcos.'
"Well, then move over there. Line forms at the rear.'"
Rally crowds love this but the newspapers and television stations, all controlled by Marcos allies, take a dim view.
"What we have is a throw-back to the mudslinging and character assassination of the past," the semi-official channel 4 editorialized Monday night. "They amuse their audiences with offensive language and jokes not befitting prospective members of a legislative assembly."
Marcos seems to have encouraged the image of an ominous break-down in law and order in the past several days. The pro-Marcos press has headlined a few mysterious bombings of power stations and the throwing of a hand grenade at Marcos' unoccupied summer home. A bombing of a Marcos campaign office here in which two people were injured was strangely not reported until two days after the event.
A fire that ravaged seven blocks of the tinder-box Tondo neighborhood Monday and left 2,000 already poor families homeless proved the last straw. Manila Mayor Ramon Bagatsing, armed with intelligence reports of more expected trouble, canceled the last the last big rallies each side had scheduled for today, the last legal day for such campaigning.
"Some people might get hurt," said Bagatsing, who lost his left leg and acquired several scars when a grenade exploded in the midst of a political meeting seven years ago. Marcos used incidents like that as the legal grounds to declare martial law in 1972. Opposition canadidates accuse Marcos of fomenting trouble to help maintain that power, but so far, Bagatsing says, "it has been a quiet campaign compared with the past".
The campaign has centered on the traditional philippine war to personalities, with Aquino and family providing the most vivid focus.
Last night, for what her mother said was the 70th time, Kris Aquino, 7, electrified a rally with an appeal for votes for her father. She said she wanted him to come home from the Fort Bonifacio cell where he has been as long as she can remember. She also thoughtfully reeled off, without notes, the names of the other 20 Laban (Fight) slate candidates running with her father.
The youngest of the five Aquino children has proved so effective a campaigner that Imelida Marcos, in a counterattack, said she was sorry for the little girl and would never involve her own children in politics.
Aquino's wife, Cory, said, "I wish she had thought of that 5 1/2 years ago when they imprisoned my husband."
The Marcoses have been introducing a child movie star, Nino Muhlach, 6, at their own rallies.
Marcos' declaration of martial law in September 1972 ended 25 years of rule under a president-congress system borrowed from the United States the system and brought continual conflict between the executive and the legislature. Political campaigns and lobbying efforts involved liberal doses of money and hired thugs, some with guns, plus a raucously free and sometimes blased press.
Friday's election - unless Aquino or some other opposition figure wins - will provide a legislature free of any politicians from the premartial law era who are not emphatically pro-Marcos.
Under a series of constitutional revisions approved by referendum since martial law began, Marcos as president and prime minister will have the power to override the legislature anyway.
An amendment in a 1976 referendum allows Marcos to "issue the necessary decrees, orders of letters of instruction which shall form part of the law of the land" if the assembly "fails, or is unable, to act adeequately."
Administrators like Bagatsing think Marcos rushed this election. They content that "two or three years from now would have been better." But a new agreement increasing payments for U.S. use of the huge Clark Air Base and Subic naval base was approaching, and Marcos noted expressions of displeasure with martial law from the Carter administration and from Congress.
"American pressure was a consideration, but only part of the process," said Labor Secretary Blas Ople, a Marcos intimate.
The 60-year-old president had won two presidential elections before martial law and he thought a campaign would be good for him. "It's helped him see which of his people measure up." said newapaper columnist Teodoro Valencia.
For Aquino, 45, it was perhaps a one-time chance for a former boy wonder of Philippine politics to win his freedom and an active role again in public life.
Since being arrested on disputed charges of murder, subversion and arms possession the day martial law was declared, the former senator has resisted offers of a pardon and forced repeated delays in his military court proceedings, all of which has served as a needle in Marcos, side and a symbol of the injustices of martial law.
Several advisers told Aquino to boycott the election, but he could not resist.
Mr. Marcos owns the ball club, he owns the players, he owns the referees," he said in one of the two press interviews allowed him during the campaign. "To be able to hold the ball . . . we have to go in.
In prison Aquino has tempered his overpowering ego somewhat and begun to think and write often about God.
His wife, who visits him twice a week, was asked to last night about the prevailing opinion that Marcos will decide whether her husband should be allowed the win.
"We think there is someone more more powerful than President Marcos," she said.*