MANILA, January 10, 2003 (STAR)  A government of national unity that will be run by a Council of State.

This is the future of the country as mapped out by President Arroyo, who has begun forming a unity government composed of "like-minded groups," in her bid to erase political divisiveness and spur economic growth in the country, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said yesterday.

He said that during the executive committee meeting of the ruling Lakas-NUCD party Wednesday night, Mrs. Arroyo said the concept of a government of national unity being pushed by Speaker Jose de Venecia had triggered a lot of discussion, but it was agreed that a Council of State would be formed.

At the Lakas caucus late Wednesday, "there was a decision reached that the standard-bearer would be chosen during the latter part of December or early January 2004," Bunye said.

He said the ruling party is confident that "there’s still enough time (to launch a winning candidacy) if you make the choice around that time."

With regards to the proposed Council of State, Bun-ye said "the members of the proposed council would be the President, the Vice President and, among those outside the present government, there will be people of like-minded groups, meaning, they subscribe to our fundamental beliefs... meaning, the regular political opposition, but this leaves room for future participation of (other) groups."

"It’s an advisory body — this will be really a venue for getting together the various sectors of society," Bunye said.

The proposed council, he added, would be a consultative body, apart from the Cabinet, that would be called by the President as the need arises. Bunye said the set-up would be similar to the National Security Council, with some modifications.

Apart from personalities from the opposition, the Council of State’s members would also include former presidents and possibly, leaders from business and key sectors, he said.

Bunye added that members of this proposed council should adhere to moral and constitutional principles as recommended by the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security.

He said some leaders of Lakas mentioned the possible inclusion of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the proposed council.

Asked whether rebel groups should first renounce violence and lay down their arms before participating in the unity government, Bunye said "it was not stated that way, but the description of the council was couched in general terms."

"For as long as you adhere to certain principles, then you could be part of the council," he added.

Former President Fidel Ramos said the "Council of Leaders" was actually an expanded form of the Council of State announced by Mrs. Arroyo months ago.

"It is another way of reaching out on the part of the President to the leaders of various political groups, including the opposition," Ramos said.

Lakas senior deputy secretary general Gabriel Claudio said a similar council was earlier formed by the late President Diosdado Macapagal, Mrs. Arroyo’s father.

Claudio also said the executive committee meeting of the ruling party also passed a three-part resolution to support the objectives of the President, including initiatives to spur economic growth, forge national unity and ensure honest, orderly and peaceful elections in 2004.

The second part of the Lakas resolution mandates the party to conduct a massive information campaign among its members to rally support for Mrs. Arroyo’s reform programs. The third part requires Lakas to desist from engaging in partisan politics, at least until Dec. 30, when the party is expected to have already chosen its standard-bearer for 2004.

Bunye also said a number of provincial party leaders "voiced misgivings of some of their own followers that they still want the President to run, and the President said: ‘No, I will not change my decision.’"

Meanwhile, former senator Raul Roco set aside his resentment towards the President and offered to help with her proposed Council of State.

Roco said his political party, Aksyon Demokratiko, supports the proposed council as a "vehicle for national unity."

"If Her Excellency finds our help useful and necessary and needs representations at meetings, we are pleased to submit for your invitation the names of (former acting health secretary) Dr. Jaime Galvez-Tan, (Aksyon) chairman, or, in his absence Mr. Evergisto Macatulad, co-chairman of Aksyon," Roco said.

On Aug. 13, 2002, a deeply hurt Roco resigned as P education secretary over Mrs. Arroyo’s "lack of courtesy" in not informing him that she had endorsed an investigation by the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) into the graft complaint filed against him by the Department of Education (DepEd) employees union.

Mrs. Arroyo’s move to endorse the PAGC investigation, however, came in the wake of the results of an opinion poll by IBON Foundation that showed Roco would trounce the Chief Executive if a presidential election were held at the time the survey was conducted.

This triggered speculations that the PAGC probe was intended to damage Roco’s chances of running against the President in 2004.

Roco has since announced his second bid for the presidency in the 2004 elections.

The President, on the other hand, declared on Dec. 30, 2002 that she was withdrawing from the presidential race in order to focus on governance during the remaining 18 months of her term.

"(Mrs. Arroyo) is asking for support... she is calling for unity, so we are going to help her," Roco added. He also offered the policy guidelines of his political party as possible terms of reference for the proposed council.

"Aksyon gives priority attention to the youth and women. We are committed to making the family strong. We believe people should be empowered through education and by keeping them healthy as human beings, in a vibrant environment. We believe in the rule of law and equal opportunity for all. We believe government should strengthen the values of the people," Roco said.

"The people are depending on the government... We must show them that there is hope. We must show them that our government has direction," he added.

Take a leave from Lakas, Pimentel asks Arroyo

In another development, opposition Sen. Aquilino Pimentel said that if the President "really wants to shy away from partisan political activities and become a president to all Filipinos, then it would be best if she totally dissociates herself from the whole process of selecting her successor."

Pimentel also suggested that the President take a leave of absence from the ruling party to "add luster to her announcement that she does not want divisive partisan politics intruding into her government for the rest of her tenure."

Vice President and Lakas national president Teofisto Guingona said the President’s endorsement, along with the recommendation of the Lakas national directorate, would serve as the primary basis in the selection of the ruling party’s standard-bearer for the 2004 polls.

"There will be no convention or primaries," Guingona said of the Lakas selection process by which it will determine its presidential candidate.

Guingona said that while the ruling party’s executive committee did not discuss the matter, a party outsider is not precluded from becoming the Lakas candidate for president.

At the same time, Guingona said it would be best to keep the 2004 elections and the politics that precede it on the back burner so all attention will be focused on the needed economic and political reforms.

However, the militant Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) yesterday said it doubted if the President could still accomplish her goals during the last 18 months of her term.

KMU secretary general Elmer Labog said the President’s "promise of economic recovery and other reforms will never happen if she will not take steps to address the perennial problems of the Filipino people."

Labog criticized Mrs. Arroyo for failing to provide economic relief to the people by allowing oil companies to raise prices without granting salary hikes to minimum wage earners.

He also said the President was unable to stop graft and corruption as well as reopen peace talks with rebel groups like the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the MILF. "Until President Arroyo agrees to reconsider the government policy on globalization, all her plans will turn to naught," Labog said.

In a like vein, exiled communist leader Jose Ma. Sison said the communist movement and the "broad united front" have won a "remarkable victory" in the form of the President’s Rizal Day declaration she will not seek re-election.

"In a roundabout way, she has admitted defeat in the face of the broad united front," Sison told The STAR. "Thus, there is a remarkable victory for the broad united front."

But Sison said the victory is not complete. The government has yet to resume peace negotiations with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its ally, the NDF, both of which Sison heads.

Sison added that the Arroyo administration is "still up to some desperate tricks" such as the slogan of "national unity."

"The NDF has never expressed any interest in joining such a sham national unity government," Sison said. "But the highest officials of the regime make it a point to rub in and stress that the NDF is barred (from this unity government), unless it gives up its revolutionary principles and arms."

The communist leader said the CPP-NDF and their armed wing, the New People’s Army, refuse to join any national unity government, calling it an "exclusive club of the exploiters and oppressors put together by the queen and her men in black in the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security."

"In view of the arrogance and intransigence of Mrs. Arroyo and the militarists around her, the resumption of the GRP-NDF peace negotiations has become uncertain, if not categorically impossible," Sison said. "The (government) officials most culpable for puppetry, plunder and brutality are the most opposed to the peace negotiations." — Paolo Romero, Sheila Crisostomo, Efren Danao, Mayen Jaymalin, Romel Bagares, AFP

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