MANILA, OCT. 20 -- Declaring "the honeymoon is over," President Corazon Aquino today directly confronted widespread criticism that she is weak and lacks vision by telling business leaders, "Henceforth, I shall rule directly as president."
In what had been billed as one of the most important speeches of her presidency, Aquino touched on all the major concerns of the business community and the general public.
The list ranged from her shaky ties with the military to concern over mounting labor unrest, from the conduct of the war against communist insurgents to nagging questions of whether she is strong enough to "hack it" as president.
"The question you all really want to ask is, can she hack it? Isn't she weak?" Aquino told a forum of more than 1,000 businessmen. "The honeymoon is over, isn't it? It didn't last very long . . . The Cory who could do no wrong in those early, invigorating months after February 1986 is seen as having done nothing at all."
Aquino answered the "weakness" charge by saying, "Although I am a woman and am physically small, I have blocked all doors to power except election in 1992." She blamed the perception that she is weak on "shamefaced officers" in the military who want to overthrow her, and on "failed politicians who made the last places in the last election and are now trying to find a back door to power."
In the 40-minute address, laced with sarcasm and interrupted several times by boisterous applause, the new, tough-sounding Aquino began her public conversion from housewife-politician to strongminded president by ordering the police and military to use force to break up widespread illegal strikes. The labor actions have added to the atmosphere of instability while threatening new business investment.
That announcement drew immediate praise from businessmen who hailed Aquino for finally taking a tough stand to end the unrest.
Representatives of church-affiliated social action groups said later, however, that the speech appeared to mark Aquino's final passage from a president of uncertain ideology to one who has decided to anchor her administration on the conservative pillars of business and the military.
They noted that her speech was aimed primarily at pleasing her business audience, and made no mention of the urban poor or the landless farmers.
Aquino also announced that she will abandon her hands-off, government-by-consensus style and begin immersing herself in the details of governing. She began by giving the mayor of Manila, Mel Lopez, one week to clean unsightly, fetid garbage piles from Manila's streets; ordering the department of public works to begin filling the city's notoriously treacherous potholes in one week; and telling the private long distance telephone company to attend to all customer complaints within 48 hours.
Aquino also ordered an investigation into frequent power shortages that plague the city. "A president is supposed to be above details," Aquino said, "but it seems I must do everything myself."
Aquino also chided the military and her appointed local officials for not handing her a "string of victories" against the country's communist insurgents. "I have said all that needs to be said. Am I also expected to take up an M16 myself and do it?"
On the question of high-level corruption that has plagued her government, Aquino said, "I have heard the talk of the coffee shops. I am addressing your concern about graft and corruption." She said she had ordered the special prosecutor to give "first priority" to graft cases against public officials, including Cabinet members.
The audience, a joint meeting of 13 of the country's most prominent business groups, first expressed surprise and then roared with thunderous applause at Aquino's unusual speech, the longest, most detailed and by far the toughest she has delivered as president.
The loudest applause came when Aquino addressed the concern most directly on the minds of businessmen -- how the government would respond to the rash of illegal strikes, most of them staged by the militant May First Movement, which has ties to the Communist Party of the Philippines.
"I will not allow an unruly minority to use the rights of labor to improve the conditions of labor to achieve a communist victory instead," Aquino said. "The way to power is the ballot, not the strike.
"I therefore order the police and other peace-keeping authorities to give full assistance to the Labor Department to remove all illegal blockades at the factory gates," Aquino said, as the business leaders jumped to their feet and shouted their approval.
Businessmen and political analysts interviewed afterward agreed that Aquino had addressed all the major concerns of her detractors, leaving the distinct impression that she has truly changed her style of management. That style has been likened here to "living by prayer and governing by miracle," in the often-quoted words of one opposition leader.
"You can see a very big difference," said businessman Raul Concepcion after the speech. "She's in full control, you can see."
The speech had been viewed as perhaps Aquino's last, best chance to assuage business community fears that she was not fully in control of her government. In anticipation of the speech, Manila's stock markets rose yesterday; investors said they expected the president to outline a comprehensive economic policy for the nation and announce what she intended to do to curb labor unrest.
Aquino began her remarks by saying, "There has been more talk than work in our country today . . . When all the talk is about coups and strikes, it is worth remembering that it is work, by all of us, that is going to lift us to better times. When politics gets in the way of work, we have a problem. And there's been too much politics."
Aquino defended her record on the economy, including impressive growth of more than 5 percent over last year, a modest increase in investment and her early dismantling of the economically oppressive monopoly structure set up under deposed president Ferdinand Marcos.
However, Aquino acknowledged that those economic gains had been set back by the "public reaction to the Aug. 28 coup attempt -- the reaction, let me emphasize, not the coup attempt." After that coup, the government became embroiled in a bitter round of recrimination that led Aquino to fire her two closest Cabinet aides in an overhaul of her government.
Aquino conceded that the coup attempt "reveals a fissure in the military -- that is true." But she asked the audience to remember that the majority of the armed forces remained loyal to her government and that the coup was crushed the same day.
"I suspect the coup bubble is burst," Aquino said. "They think their coups, bombings and assassinations will break the people's resistance to their brand of government and make them accept peace and quiet at any price. I invite them especially to look at their mentor in Hawaii and contemplate his fate," she said, referring to Marcos' exile in Honolulu.