MANILA, AUG. 17 -- Juan Ponce Enrile, the former defense minister who led last year's military revolt in the Philippines, made his debut today as opposition leader in the Philippine Senate -- and the session turned into an emotional and sometimes bitter retelling of Enrile's powerful role during nine years of martial law government.
Enrile's election was confirmed by the Philippine Supreme Court Aug. 13 after being contested for three months.
During a three-hour exchange in the Senate today, several of Enrile's Senate colleagues -- many of whom were jailed or forced into exile during his tenure as defense minister under president Ferdinand Marcos -- evoked memories of nighttime arrests, assassinations and home searches. One senator accused Enrile of behaving "like the good Germans" during the Nazi era, while another asked Enrile whether he would congratulate Marcos for the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino.
It was an emotional catharsis for the assembled politicians, many of whom seemed unsure how to receive a man who to them represents a past era of repression and dictatorial rule.
The recriminations began when Enrile, in his maiden speech, attacked President Corazon C. Aquino for resorting to martial law methods -- specifically the widespread use of new military checkpoints around the capital -- to stem a rising wave of violence that has claimed the life of a top Cabinet member.
The debate took an ironic turn as Enrile argued for individual liberties and fervently defended the new constitution which he had campaigned to defeat, while senators who had been human rights lawyers during the Marcos regime defended military checkpoints and tough anticrime measures.
Enrile particularly rankled his colleagues when he said, "We consider it political hypocrisy for the incumbent administration to protest against the edicts of martial law and at the same time invoke those same edicts."
When Enrile mentioned martial law he appeared to remove all barriers of Senate decorum and delicadeza, or senatorial courtesy, and open for debate a topic that some senators had considered too delicate to broach: Enrile's own role as defense minister during martial law from 1972 to 1981, when at least three members of the current Senate were jailed and several others were forced to flee into exile.
Enrile defended his actions by saying that everything he did was legal, since Marcos' declaration of martial law had been lawful under the old constitution.
Enrile said his own job "was simply to carry out the order of the president."
At that, Sen. Rene Saguisag, a leftist lawyer and antigovernment activist during the Marcos regime, fired back: "Just like the good Germans during the Nazi era?"
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel told the packed chamber that in 1984 he was held "under military detention . . . courtesy of Minister Juan Ponce Enrile." Pimentel accused Enrile of hypocrisy for opposing the new military checkpoints, telling the former defense minister "You never raised a voice against the very practice you are now trying to condemn."
Sen. Raul Manglapus told how, after the declaration of martial law, soldiers ransacked his house and forced him to remain in exile in the United States.
In the months following the 1986 revolution, Enrile escaped the kind of attack that occurred today largely because he helped to overthrow Marcos and then stayed on as defense minister in Aquino's new government.
But it was an uneasy alliance. The president and most members of her Cabinet have never fully trusted the man they bitterly opposed for more than a decade.
Aquino fired Enrile as defense minister last November amid reports that a clique of young officers loyal to him were plotting a military coup. Enrile is still thought to enjoy considerable sympathy from large segments of the military because of his staunch anticommunism. In the electon in May, Enrile and the opposition slate he headed ran better than Aquino-backed candidates in precincts in or near military camps.
Most political analysts expect that Enrile as a senator the Senate will be a stabilizing factor in the country's democracy, giving the disaffected elements in the military the feeling that their views are being represented.
Last week, on the day after the Supreme Court ruled that Enrile was the 24th and final Senate winner, prices on the Manila and Makati stock exchanges rose 26 and 29 points, respectively, after a four-day decline. Some market analysts suggested that investors think Enrile's election has lessened the risk of plots against the government.
Enrile comes to the Senate after a bitter, three-month election recount battle. He adds a new dimension to the 24-member body, giving the Senate a powerful new opposition voice. The only other opposition senator, movie actor Joseph (Erap) Estrada, is a relative newcomer to politics and has been largely silent so far. Estrada today welcomed Enrile and deferred to him as the new minority leader.
Enrile, a Harvard-trained lawyer, is a lively debater recognized for a keen legal mind.
In his first roll-call vote today, Enrile abstained on a bill to rename the international airport here "Ninoy Aquino International Airport" in honor of Benigno Aquino, slain husband of the president. Under martial law, Enrile jailed Aquino, and controlled the visiting rights of his wife. Today's bill was overwhelmingly approved.