December 23, 1985 12:00 PM

Corazon Aquino’s agony of indecision began on Nov. 3. Ferdinand Marcos, strongman of the Philippines, had stunned the world that day, announcing that he would seek the voters’ verdict on his 20-year rule with a “snap” election in early 1986. For Cory, 52, widow of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, who had been assassinated two years earlier, the question was deceptively simple: Should she run in her husband’s place? “I lost much sleep, had many nightmares,” she says. The stress was intense. Her head swirled with the unsolicited advice pouring in from all sides. Friends and wealthy political backers urged her to put her name forward and lead a unified opposition to Marcos, who she believes ordered her husband’s killing. Shy by nature and painfully aware of her inexperience in politics, Cory wavered.

“I was hoping,” she says, “to hear Ninoy tell me, ‘Cory, will you please listen? Here’s what to do.’ ” On Nov. 10, still confused, she visited Ninoy’s grave to pray for guidance. Whatever its source, Cory found certainty at last: It was her duty to place the Aquino name in contention.

If Cory needed confirmation of that decision, it came almost immediately with the resolution of the murky investigation of Ninoy’s death. A year ago an independent commission had accused a civilian and 25 soldiers, including Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Fabian Ver, of conspiring to gun down Aquino at Manila airport on his return from exile in the U.S On Dec. 2, however, a panel of three Marcos-appointed judges acquitted all the defendants. Next morning, Cory declared her candidacy before a crowd of cheering, tearful supporters. Just as Ninoy had said on heading home, she announced, “I will never be able to forgive myself…if I could have done something and I did not do anything.”

But Cory’s crusade offers slim chance of accomplishing miracles. Whatever her moral qualifications she has never held elective office. She still is uncertain what word to use in the space marked “occupation” on travel documents. Indeed, as recently as five years ago, she deferred to her husband, who she acknowledges was a male chauvinist. While campaigning as his wife and, recently, for other reform candidates, she says, “I always entreated people to become involved to bring about the necessary change. Of course, I did not mean for them to become involved with Cory Aquino.” Even so, she has never lacked courage. She took charge of the planning for Ninoy’s politically explosive funeral, leading a million mourners through the streets with dry-eyed stoicism. “After he died,” she says, “I really amazed myself.”

Veteran politicians put Cory through a cram course in national issues, but hopes that the fractious opposition might unite behind her seemed shattered earlier this month when Salvador Laurel, a former senator with a strong political organization, declined to run as her vice-president, choosing instead to launch a rival campaign for the presidency. After an 11th hour meeting with Cory and her staff, Laurel reversed field and agreed to run on the Aquino ticket in the number two spot. Cory supporters now believe that her emotional appeal could carry the election.

In her early years with her husband, Cory always played a supporting role, caring for their five children. Her husband had risen brilliantly, from the Philippines’ youngest governor to its youngest senator. At 39 in 1972 he seemed a good bet to become the next president of the republic as well. Then Marcos proclaimed martial law, canceled the election and tossed Ninoy in prison for alleged subversion. While Aquino served eight years in prison, Cory provided a link with the outside world, smuggling out his writings and bringing him messages from supporters. In 1980 Aquino was given a medical release to come to the U.S. for heart surgery. Cory remembers the family’s three years in Boston, where Aquino was a research fellow at Harvard, as among their happiest together. She opposed his return to the Philippines after the Marcos government warned him to delay the trip.

For all those years she was being tutored by a master politician. Her task now is to inspire campaign crowds with Ninoy’s memory while establishing herself as his successor. The election will be a contemporary morality play, pitting the shrewdest politician against the most untested, the status quo against the prospect of uncertain change. “I am the best-known victim of Marcos’ long list of victims,” Cory says, “and that contrast is necessary to convince people that there is still a chance for this country, that there is hope.”

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