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Marcos mystery illness sparks unease in Philippines

By JACK REED

MANILA, Philippines -- The obvious poor health of President Ferdinand Marcos and his disappearance from public view has his opposition frantically looking for a would-be successor and Filipinos pondering their future.

The opposition wants to ensure a peaceful transition should the 67-year-old Marcos die or become incapacitated before elections for a six-year presidential term -- now scheduled for 1987.

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The alternative, fraught with grim possibilities, is a military takeover.

'We have to unify. We have no choice,' said Abraham Sarmiento, secretary general of the Liberal Party.

The one man all agree could have ended Marcos' 19-year-rule, former Sen. Benigno Aquino, was murdered while under military escort at Manila airport on Aug. 21, 1983.

This weekend, opposition personalities planned meetings to discuss candidates for a successor for Marcos. The Grand Old Man of the opposition, former Sen. Lorenzo Tanada, 86, said the search boiled downto eight men.

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Among them were Aquino's brother Agapito, Benguet Mining Corp. President Jaime Ongpin, former Sen. Salvador Laurel and Member of Parliament Aquilino Pimentel.

'Marcos could die at any time,' Pimentel said bluntly.

Among those in the ruling party mentioned as possible succesors were Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Labor Minister Blas Ople, and -- despite her denials of having presidential ambitions -- Marcos's powerful wife, Imelda.

In the National Assembly, fears about Marcos's health have prompted opposition and even some ruling party MPs to draft laws to fill the gaps in presidential succession.

Under current law, Assembly Speaker Nicanor Yniguez would take over for a dead or disabled president for 45 to 60 days until new elections could be held.

One ruling party bill would have the prime pinister and the speaker pro tempore next in line of succession.

Amid the uncertainty, the task of handling rumors of a military takeover has fallen to the acting armed forces chief, Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, who replaced Gen. Fabian Ver when Ver went on a leave of absence after being officially implicated in the Aquino case.

Ramos conceded the report naming Ver and 25 others as conspirators in Aquino's murder and Marcos's illness 'made the people apprehensive.'

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He said Pimentel's claim that a junta would replace Marcos should he undergo surgery in the United States was 'not true.' He pledged the military's tradition to defend the constitution.

But no matter what the government said, Filipinos found it hard to swallow.

'The government's credibility is shot,' said the outspoken Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin.

Offically, Marcos was suffering from the flu, but events leading to his Nov. 13 disappearance from public view suggested the departure had been arranged and that he had in fact undergone medical treatment.

Exactly what ails Marcos remained a mystery, but high-level officials confirmed he had been hospitalized and that American specialists had flown in to treat him.

Marcos's former information minister, Francisco Tatad, reported the president suffers from lupus erythematosus, a degenerative tissue disease, and had undergone major kidney or heart surgery.

From Nov. 14 to Nov. 18, Marcos was out of touch with senior officials, his longest disappearance since August 1983 when he vanished shortly before Aquino's murder amid similar reports of a serious ailment.

From Nov. 19 until Nov. 27, when he appeared tired and swollen on state-run television for a budget-signing ceremony, Marcos had been in contact with ranking officials only by telephone.

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He appeared again on television Friday in footage -- said to have been shot earlier in the day -- that showed him meeting with Enrile.

But opposition politicians are not satisfied by the brief television appearances.

'It's not good for the country,' said former Sen. Laurel. 'It reminds me of the Soviet Union. They don't do this in democratic countries.'

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