Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, who played a central role in the Marcos government, then in the bloodless revolution that toppled it, and now in the Aquino government, has still another role in the back of his mind for the future: president of his country.

Enrile said at a business luncheon here last week that he might run for president if "provoked" by antagonists, prompting a new wave of press stories and political speculation about a figure who is increasingly at the top of the news. Just a week before, Manila was swirling with stories -- denied by all sides -- that Enrile was planning a military coup against Aquino.

"All I want after we have stabilized the country is to leave the scene to live a quiet, peaceful, tranquil life," said the 62-year-old attorney, leaning across the Defense Ministry's desk where he administered martial law for Ferdinand Marcos and, early this year, led the military revolt that deposed Marcos.

Asked point-blank if he would run in a future presidential election, Enrile refused to answer, calling it an "if question" that puts him in an impossible position.

An inquiry about his views on the present system, however, brings an immediate and articulate answer with a political ring to it. "If you ask me if I have a vision of what my society ought to be -- yes. What the government should be -- yes. What kind of politics should be played in the country -- yes. What the role of a public servant ought to be -- yes," Enrile volunteered.

With that, he turned coy, refusing to be explicit about his ideas. Asked if they are different from today's reality, Enrile replied, "There is room for improvement."

The government of Corazon Aquino is in many respects a coalition of politically liberal civil rights figures, economically conservative business and financial leaders, and military-related leaders, who are holdovers from the Marcos regime.

The soft-spoken president in the yellow dress presides over all this and seems to encompass all tendencies at once. Struggles for both policy and power are evident, however, as political, economic and military fields overlap and advisers contend for favor.

Enrile's Cabinet role is backed by increasingly open political activity. In recent weeks Enrile has been speaking nearly every day to a civic or business group in Manila, unless he is out touring the provinces accompanied by reporters in what resembles a candidate's tour. No other figure, including Aquino, is so active in the political arena.

Enrile has been reported to be involved in creating a new political party with strong roots in the provinces, and which includes many who had earlier supported Marcos.

In Manila a few days ago, leaders of a movement that had been demonstrating for the return of Marcos to the Philippines announced they were abandoning that effort and backing Enrile instead. This switch, which was disavowed by Enrile, fueled further speculation.

Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, who was released from a long imprisonment on Aquino's orders following the overthrow of Marcos, said in an interview that "time is running against Enrile" because Aquino probably would replace the defense minister in a few months.

Former Marcos labor minister Blas Ople, now a leading opposition political figure, said in a recent speech that Enrile's presence in the Cabinet is "stabilizing and strengthening" to the Aquino government "but also embarrassing because of his close association with Marcos for 20 years."

While government anticorruption units are investigating other Marcos cronies, Ople said, "they have to say since Enrile led the revolution that put them in power, it is all right for him to be exempt from any questions. That gets them into the position of having to profess a double standard."

As for Enrile, who is a lawyer by profession and a speculative political thinker by inclination, the uncertainty of the present is just another turn in a life full of surprises.

"I never planned this," he said of a career that has ranged from Marcos' close aide to nemesis and now to Cabinet member under Aquino. "It just happened, as an accident of history."