"The leader of the hour, the man of destiny is here with us today!"
Loudspeakers boomed forth this introduction today and President Ferdinand Marcos strode to a lectern in a small, tin-roofed stadium here, in a scene that suggested his political machine remains very much in operation, even deep in opposition country.
The stands were overflowing with people of all ages. Many had ridden for hours in company buses and trucks to be present. Many sat divided into neatly labeled delegations and waved printed banners backing Marcos in the presidential election scheduled for Feb. 7.
It was Marcos' first foray in 10 years into Davao, a chaotic and largely wooden port city of close to 1 million people that has been a base for agitation against his rule. His supporters had seen to it that he had a proper welcome.
People turned out, but among some interviewed in the stadium there were signs of apathy and cynicism about Marcos the candidate. The interviews suggested that in the privacy of the voting booth, they might bolt and go for Marcos' opponent, Corazon Aquino.
Just how effective Marcos' national organization will be against Aquino, who has tried to project herself as a new type of leader free of machines, is emerging as a key issue of the campaign.
Marcos' rally came nowhere near in size or enthusiasm to one staged here last week for Aquino. Then, people lined the streets from the airport to catch a glimpse of the candidate. There were no such crowds in the streets today, despite the president's long absence, and in the stadium, the applause was at best polite.
Before Marcos' arrival today, one young man waiting at the stadium said that about 300 of the 700 people employed with him at a lumber company had come to the rally with encouragement from the management. "Our logging license was just awarded by the president in October," he said. "We're very grateful."
Another man at the rally said he liked Marcos because of development projects he had brought. A few minutes later he was explaining that the boss of the plantation where he works as a pineapple harvester had ordered everyone to go (with pay) and that six buses had brought people to Davao.
Others said they had come on their own, but that attendance was helped along by nationally known comedians and singers who flew down from Manila and warmed up the crowd as it waited for Marcos in a drizzle that turned the field into a sea of mud.
Shortly before 1 p.m. the candidate's limousine appeared across the field and hundreds of red, white and blue balloons were released. Flanked by soldiers, the limousine crept through the crowd and released Marcos right at the speakers' platform. Looking fit despite recurrent bouts with lupus, a systemic disease that has damaged his kidneys, he walked up unaided.
Despite his long absence, he cast himself in his speech as a man with close ties to Davao. "This is where I learned to shoot when I was only 14, 15 years old," said Marcos, a one-time champion marksman. ". . . You should consider me not as a visitor but as a part of Davao."
He said that a half million people had come. Western reporters estimated the crowd at 50,000 to 100,000 and Marcos' own staff put it at 150,000. Switching between English and Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, Marcos launched into a speech that covered his World War II record, the dangers of communism, his long experience in government and a claim that God supports his campaign.
Then an aide passed him papers and Marcos announced that he was signing, on the spot, presidential decrees to benefit the area. He declared certain areas to be priority zones for new housing to replace slums. He said Davao would have a slaughterhouse. He promised a science high school and an investigation to bring down the cost of electricity. The crowd cheered.
Through his talk, people milled around at the edge of the platform, trying to pass notes to the president seeking special intercession.