MANILA, January 9, 2003 (STAR) By Efren Danao and Sheila Crisostomo  - Raul Roco’s second bid for the presidency received a major boost yesterday when two key groups in President Arroyo’s political coalition endorsed him as their common candidate in the 2004 elections.

In a joint statement, former Cebu governor Lito Osmeña, president of the Probinsiya Muna Development Initiative (Promdi), and former Defense Secretary Renato de Villa, chairman of Reporma, announced that they would like the former education secretary to be the standard-bearer of the People Power Coalition (PPC) now that Mrs. Arroyo has declared she is out of the running.

De Villa said Roco is the coalition’s "very viable" candidate. "We certainly hope the President will see it that way," De Villa told a television interview.

Promdi and Reporma are both members of the PPC, the broad coalition that helped topple President Joseph Estrada in January 2001 and installed Mrs. Arroyo, who was then vice president, in power.

Roco’s party, Aksyon Demokratiko, is also a member of the PPC.

"Since 1998, Promdi, Reporma and Ak-syon Demokratiko have worked together to uphold principled leadership, regional and provincial development, people empowerment, rule of law and equal opportunity for all," Osmeña and De Villa said in the statement.

Roco, Osmeña and De Villa had spearheaded what they called a "third force" to change the direction of Philippine politics after they — along with Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. and six other candidates — all lost to Estrada in the 1998 presidential race.

Osmeña and De Villa made it clear they were not campaigning for the 2004 polls because "it’s too early to do that." They said they only wanted their choice to be publicly known while the PPC has yet to decide on who should be its bet.

Mrs. Arroyo’s party, Lakas-NUCD, which she co-chairs with De Venecia, is currently in a quandary after she announced on Dec. 30 that she was withdrawing from the presidential race.

Mrs. Arroyo said she wanted to focus on fixing the country’s sluggish economy during her remaining 18 months in office and avoid being distracted by politics.

She later told a television interview that she will pick her successor in December 2003, or five months before the May 2004 presidential elections.

Mrs. Arroyo’s decision not to run is seen as a big boost to Roco’s chances in 2004, whether or not he is the majority coalition’s candidate.

However, Surigao del Sur Rep. Ace Barbers said there was a possibility that Roco might still not be chosen because Lakas, the dominant party in the coalition, might want to field its own candidate.

Roco made a strong showing in the 1998 polls, raking in the women and youth votes and placing third despite the lack of a political machinery.

He ran for senator in 1992 and was re-elected in 1995. He was appointed education secretary by Mrs. Arroyo shortly after she replaced Estrada, who was ousted in a military-backed popular protest.

Estrada is on trial for allegedly taking bribes from illegal gambling rackets, misusing state funds and profiting from insider trading. He is accused of amassing more than P4 billion ($75 million) during his 31-month rule.

Bukidnon Rep. Juan Miguel Zubiri earlier said some Lakas lawmakers in the House of Representatives are "actively pushing" for Roco’s candidacy because his party is a member of the majority coalition and he had consistently topped opinion polls.

It was earlier reported that Lakas might pick former President Fidel Ramos. However, Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles said the party must look for another candidate because Ramos might be ineligible due to the presidential one-term limit prescribed by the Constitution.

Roco has remained silent on the issue but his brother, Camarines Sur Rep. Sulpicio Roco, earlier said the former education secretary was open to the idea of running for PPC or Lakas-NUCD.

Other probable presidential nominees of the majority coalition are Vice President Teofisto Guingona, Senate President Franklin Drilon, Senate President Pro Tempore Juan Flavier, Majority Leader Loren Legarda, Sen. Noli de Castro and Sen. Robert Barbers.

A Roco candidacy might mean mending fences with the President.

In early August, Roco stunned the Presidential Palace when he resigned in a fit of anger after Mrs. Arroyo endorsed an investigation by the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) into his alleged improprieties for using Department of Education funds to publish posters bearing his photograph.

Roco’s complaint was that Mrs. Arroyo lacked basic courtesy in informing him about the probe. Since then Roco has remained distant from Mrs. Arroyo.

The PAGC probe stemmed from a complaint by an employees union at the department, accusing Roco of using the posters to advance his bid for the presidency in 2004.

"I was a member of the official family and I was not even asked about it," a visibly angry Roco said in a television talk show.

In the same interview, he rejected Malacañang’s explanation that Mrs. Arroyo’s endorsement of the investigation was routine.

But Roco rejected speculation that Mrs. Arroyo — who was then planning to run in 2004 — endorsed the investigation to decimate him in case he decided to make a second bid for the presidency.

The speculation followed the results of an opinion poll by IBON Foundation released on Aug. 1 — the day Mrs. Arroyo endorsed the probe — that showed Roco would trounce her if an election were held at the time the survey was conducted.

Mrs. Arroyo tried to mend fences with Roco and thought of offering him another government post but failed. Roco met with Mrs. Arroyo at Malacañang for reconciliation talks did not change his mind about resigning.

His resignation initially caused speculation that some Lakas members would become sympathetic to Roco and split from the party, prompting party leaders to conduct a loyalty check.

Roco was the second Cabinet member to resign in little over a month.

On July 3, Guingona Jr. resigned from his concurrent post as secretary of foreign affairs after publicized quarrels with Mrs. Arroyo on the presence of US troops in the country.

He was believed pressured by Mrs. Arroyo, a staunch supporter of the US-led global war against terrorism, to resign.

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