Take That, Fungus Face

She once called a political rival "fungus face" and challenged him to a fistfight. When he declined, she dared him to measure his brainpower against hers in an IQ test. He ducked that challenge, too. Miriam Defensor Santiago would be the Ross Perot of Philippine politics if she hadn't already become the Don Rickles--a master of the outrageous insult. "I may not be a genius," she said during the recent presidential campaign, "but my opponents are certifiable idiots." In the early stages of an excruciatingly slow vote count last week, Santiago was at or near the top of a seven-candidate field. The outcome might be known this week, but win or lose, Santiago was by far the most interesting candidate in a turbulent political arena.

She is the candidate of the outsiders, people who are fed up with crooked politicians and greedy oligarchs. The "mad as hell" vote overcame Santiago's lack of money and organization and had her running neck and neck in the early returns with retired Gen. Fidel (Eddie) Ramos, a former secretary of defense who was endorsed by outgoing President Corazon Aquino. "I articulate the deepest need of the Filipino people, which is reform of a corrupt culture," Santiago said after last Monday's election. When returns come in from the provinces, where votes are bought in bulk, she may lose to Ramos or to tycoon Eduardo (Danding) Cojuangco, who was known as "the king of the cronies" at the court of the late Ferdinand Marcos. Even if she wins, she will face a Congress controlled by the fat political machine of another presidential contender, Ramon Mitra. But the size of Santiago's protest vote is impressive. "I was trying to part the waters of the Red Sea," she said, "and Monday, to my surprise, the waters parted."

Santiago, 46, started her career in public service as what she calls a "silent nerd in the bureaucracy." Impressively educated (she has two law degrees from the University of Michigan), she was a judge when Aquino named her immigration commissioner with a mandate to clean up one of the government's dirtiest departments. Santiago made quite a stir at Immigration, cracking down on wrongdoers and laughing off the perils of crime-busting ("I eat death threats for breakfast"). Next she took on the inefficient Department of Agrarian Reform but lasted only a few months. Aquino fired her after an unsuccessful coup in December 1989, when it was discovered that army mutineers had put Santiago's name on a list of potential junta leaders." So I'm on the junta list," she shrugged. "There's also a list of 10 women with the most beautiful legs in the country, and I'm on that list. So what?"

With rhetoric as cruel as her own, Santiago's enemies make much of her volatile character. They call her "Brenda" (short for "brain-damaged," they say) and " Rita" (for "retarded"). Santiago admits she suffered from a stubborn nervous ailment when she was a trial judge in Quezon City. " The doctors ran out of words from the medical lexicon," she told NEWSWEEK. "SO they called it a nervous disorder related to stress." She says the ailment caused neck spasms and blinding headaches, " but I went to a faith healer and obtained relief." The symptoms never recurred, and she has not used a faith healer since then, she says.

Santiago's closest rival, Fidel Ramos, remarks pointedly that "people want stability, and instability arises from unpredictability." Santiago retorts that Ramos is simply "a male version of Corazon Aquino [who] habitually waffles under stress." An admirer of John F. Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher and Singapore's ironhanded Lee Kuan Yew, she describes herself as "a strong, authoritative disciplinarian whom the Filipino people will respond to"-- acknowledging a similarity to Ferdinand Marcos on that score. "If she wins, it's a real crapshoot," says J. V. Cruz, a former Marcos aide and a bleary-eyed veteran of decades in smoke-filled rooms. "Either she's a real catalyst for change, or she so alienates the political establishment that we could have more chaos than we've had during six years of Aquino's drift. It speaks reams about the mood of the nation that people are willing to take this risk."

Santiago herself professes mixed emotions about political success. Claiming victory last week, she accused her opponents of " wholesale electoral fraud" and called for mass demonstrations. "Filipinos who helped me win will not allow the triumph of evil," she warned. " The will of the people is crystal clear and irrefragable," Santiago added, using a fancy word for "undisputed." (She loves big words and keeps a Webster's Unabridged Dictionary on a stand in her parlor.) But she also expressed a longing for the academic life. It is painful, she said, for "a person of literary pretensions" to be accused of things like "insanity, murder, graft and corruption." She said she longs to retreat to the "ivory tower," perhaps to accept a scholarship she has been offered at Harvard. "I'd love to go back to an American campus, wear flat shoes, and denigrate everybody and talk about quantum physics over dinner," she says. But after Philippine politics, even academia may not be a big enough snakepit for Miriam Santiago.