President Ferdinand Marcos is being viewed here as a leader increasingly out of touch with the reality around him and who appears unable to check the steady growth of a Communist insurgency despite assertions that it is "under control," according to Philippine and foreign analysts.
The insurgency, now considered the most serious of the Philippines' multiple problems and a major potential threat to U.S. interests in the country and region, continues to gain ground politically and militarily with little prospect of reversal while Marcos remains in power, the analysts say.
In the face of the spreading rebellion and grave economic difficulties, the leadership of Marcos, 67 and ailing in his 20th year in power, seems to consist mainly of political rear-guard actions aimed at preserving the status quo.
"Mr. Marcos certainly is no longer in touch with his people," said an editorial in the weekly newspaper Veritas, which is backed by the Philippines' powerful Roman Catholic Church.
"One wonders if he is even in touch with the realities of the Philippine condition."
One western analyst said the situation, particularly the Communist insurgency, "is worse than we thought even some months ago. I feel the country is slipping away and nobody is doing anything about it. Large chunks of the country don't belong to the regime anymore."
The situation represents a setback for U.S. policy objectives of fending off the Communist insurgents and revitalizing the economy through military, political and economic reforms.
Hopes for those reforms were raised at times last year by parliamentary elections, an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on an economic recovery program, and official findings that the military was responsible for the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.
But events in recent weeks have indicated new obstacles.
Marcos has announced that his longtime close associate, Gen. Fabian Ver, would be reinstated as armed forces chief of staff if he is acquitted in the Aquino murder case.
Several key witnesses have either disappeared or refused to testify in the case for fear of reprisals, and a parliamentary investigation of the sugar industry -- long run by another Marcos associate, Roberto Benedicto -- has been abruptly terminated.
Other developments that have helped foster an image of growing political isolation were Marcos' dismissal this week of Foreign Minister Arturo Tolentino and the resignation -- so far not accepted -- of Labor Minister Blas Ople. Both are known as independent-minded men who have objected to Marcos's use of decree powers and patronage.
The pessimism was heightened by Marcos's performance at a press conference last week, his first since last June and one of his rare public appearances since he became ill in November and went into seclusion for several weeks.
Marcos spent much of the 90-minute news conference defending his record during 20 years in power -- from his nine-year imposition of martial law, beginning in 1972, to the accumulation of a $26 billion foreign debt -- and denying that the Communist insurgency was a growing threat.
"As of now I don't think it's growing," Marcos said of the rebellion by the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed guerrilla wing, the New People's Army. "We have hit them in so many places so hard in the last couple of months."
Marcos asserted that 119 party or guerrilla leaders had been "captured or liquidated" since the beginning of last year and that a shift to insurgent operations using larger units would be the rebels' undoing.
The president's assertions contrasted with reports last week of guerrilla raids and running battles with government troops on the southern island of Mindanao, the central island of Negros and in the mountains of northern Luzon. In the southern city of Davao, 110 persons were reported killed between Dec. 21 and Feb. 22. Some government officials lately have drawn hazardous duty pay for merely going to the city, the third largest in the Philippines after Metro Manila and Cebu.
Government officials also have had difficulty reconciling Marcos' statements with recent admissions by the armed forces and Defense Ministry that the insurgency has been growing. Acting Chief of Staff Gen. Fidel Ramos said in November that the Communist rebellion had spread to 63 of the Philippines' 73 provinces.
Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile has said the New People's Army had grown 23 percent from 1983 to 1984. He said military intelligence put the guerrillas' numbers at 11,000 to 12,000.
In its editorial last week, Veritas said further evidence of "how distant and remote" Marcos has grown was his announcement that he would reinstate Gen. Ver if he is acquitted in the current trial.
Ver and 25 others others -- all but one of them military men -- are charged in connection with the Aug. 21, 1983, slayings of Aquino and Rolando Galman at Manila international airport.
The military blamed Aquino's assassination on Galman, an alleged Communist hit man who was killed by military guards immediately after Aquino was shot.
But a fact-finding board appointed by Marcos ruled last year that the killing was plotted, carried out and covered up by military men.
In a trial that started last month, Ver and seven other defendants were charged as accessories in the cover-up, while 17 military men were charged as principals and the lone civilian as an accomplice.
The Marcos government's handling of the Aquino murder case has been praised by U.S. officials, most recently in a Feb. 22 speech by Paul Wolfowitz, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
However, opposition politicians and lawyers here charged that Marcos' remarks about reinstating Ver could prejudice the prosecution's case, which already seems to be unraveling.
So far, members of Galman's family have refused to testify on grounds that the accused military men should be jailed rather than left in the custody of their commanding officers. And several eyewitnesses whose testimony contributed to the board's findings of a military plot failed to appear in court and could not be located by sheriffs.
While it was unclear whether the witnesses were being prevented from testifying, some concerns for their safety were expressed because of the disappearances of potential witnesses earlier.
An opposition lawyer, Rene Saguisag, said that without witnesses the prosecution's case was in trouble, and the trial could be headed for early acquittals.
Marcos' statement about Ver, he said, "is going to discourage a lot of witnesses" because of "possible reprisals. . . . There is really not much confidence about the present proceedings."
In his recent speech, Wolfowitz also praised initial steps toward "structural reforms" in the economy and "positive signs of military reform."
U.S. officials have made clear that the economic reforms they seek entail the elimination of "crony capitalism," where major Philippine industries, such as sugar and coconuts, have been monopolized by friends of the president.
Under pressure, Marcos recently created the Philippine Sugar Marketing Corp. to replace the widely criticized National Sugar Trading Corp. run by his friend, Benedicto, as the sole buying and selling agency for sugar in the country. But while the new corporation is supposed to guarantee accountability and have representation from sugar planters, millers and consumers, sugar industry and parliamentary sources say there are signs that control of the new organization is being sought by loyalists of the Philippines coconut czar, Eduardo Cojuangco, another close Marcos friend.
Members of Marcos' ruling New Society Movement in parliament cited the creation of the new corporation, and the filing of a criminal case with a government ombudsman, as reasons for ending a parliamentary investigation of the sugar industry last week before Benedicto could be questioned by opposition legislators. Marcos opponents have charged that planters have been massively bilked over the years by the Benedicto-run corporation, which they say has failed to account for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Progress has also been questionable in military reform, according to knowledgeable sources.
Although hopes were raised by Marcos' appointment last October of Gen. Ramos, a West Point graduate with a reputation for professionalism and honesty, to replace Ver temporarily as acting chief of staff, insiders say he so far has proved powerless to implement the most needed reforms.
Privately, Ramos has all but acknowledged that he is powerless to accomplish much in his present capacity because he is not allowed to change personnel appointed by Ver, the sources say.
Ramos has been successful only in reforming procurement policy, the sources say. They say he has been unable to reduce military abuses, improve training and discipline and achieve better results in the counterinsurgency battle.
A member of Marcos' ruling party said the situation was growing particularly serious on the island of Negros, where workers in the severely depressed sugar industry have become easy targets for Communist recruiters.
A foreign analyst confirmed that the island "lends itself to a revolutionary situation" and that in particular, "western Negros is coming apart."
Meanwhile, said a diplomat, the rebels are taking advantage of the government's failure to solve social and economic problems in the countryside and the military's increasing frustration with civilian efforts.
"The NPA is definitely growing, and its strategy is definitely working," the diplomat said. The strategy, he said, includes establishment of an "invisible government" that tends to get more brutal and demanding as it gets stronger in areas where it is in control.
Yet the response of the Marcos government so far has been to "play politics as usual" with the insurgency and other problems.
"You're going to see a regime doing everything it can to try to convince the world that real changes are going on while trying to maintain the old system," the diplomat said. "The question is whether this time Marcos is going to be able to get away with it."