MANILA, January 11, 2003 (STAR) 
By Paolo Romero and Jess Diaz  - The 2004 elections will be held as scheduled.

President Arroyo, opposition Sen. Edgardo Angara and the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) party said yesterday they will oppose any move to cancel the 2004 elections, or the so-called ‘Oplan No-el."

Mrs. Arroyo said she will not stop the debates on Charter change (Cha-cha), but will not push for amendments that will allow her to lead the country again.

In a speech at the signing of Republic Act 9183, or the Special Purpose Asset Vehicle Act, at the Philippine Stock Exchange in Makati City, the President said she will convene the Legislative-Executive Development Authority Council (LEDAC) on Jan. 14 to include the chairmen of the Senate and House committees which will deliberate on her economic reform programs.

"What we will not talk about is Charter change," Mrs. Arroyo said. "I don’t want the people to misunderstand the reason for my decision not to run in 2004. The focus of the (LEDAC) discussion must, therefore, be — exclusively — the economy."

She also called for cooperation between both branches of government, where Congress would give her good laws, while her administration would give the people "firm and efficient implementation."

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo will not interfere in debates or discussion over possible amendments to the 1987 Constitution, including its economic provisions, as long as these debates and discussions will not affect the holding of the 2004 national elections.

"She’s not discouraging debate. She has always been an advocate of free exchange of ideas," Bunye said. However, he added that "she’s not saying ‘go ahead’ (with the debates, either). She’s just being consistent."

The President has been saying that she will not make a position on Cha-cha unless there is a clear groundswell of support for it and economic stability has been achieved.

Angara, for his part, reiterated his firm opposition to any moves to amend the Charter in order to postpone the 2004 elections.

"A no-election scenario and the extension of President Arroyo’s term are two dead issues. These have been rejected and forgotten," Angara said.

He said he would not be party to any effort to promote a no-election scenario that would extend the President’s tenure. He added that the LDP, which he heads, is against the postponement of the 2004 elections.

"I personally feel that President Arroyo will not promote efforts that would abort the 2004 elections," Angara added.

This came as the House and Senate committees on constitutional amendments are set to start hearings on Cha-cha. Angara said these hearings will get the issue of "out of the closet and into the public domain."

"The joint hearings will start without a mindset and will merely serve as forum for many views on constitutional change," Angara said.

According to Angara, the hearings could be conducted without disrupting both chambers’ legislative work.

In a related development, the LDP said it remains opposed to the No-el proposal even if Angara becomes Senate president again.

House Minority Leader Carlos Padilla (LDP, Nueva Vizcaya) made this clear yesterday in the wake of speculations about what deals Angara has struck with Mrs. Arroyo during their late night meeting last Monday.

One version of the story has it that the LDP president has committed his party to abandon its stand against the proposed scrapping of the 2004 elections and to support Cha-cha in exchange for the Senate presidency.

"In fairness to the President and Senator Angara, no such deals were made. We will continue to oppose No-el and the Cha-cha initiative before the 2004 presidential elections. We can consider Cha-cha after 2004," Padilla said.

Padilla said Angara, as LDP president, "continues to recognize and stick to this party stand."

"He reiterated his support for and fidelity to this position during our caucus Tuesday night, a day after he met with Mrs. Arroyo," he said.

Padilla said he warned Angara that he would face a mutiny among his followers in the House should he abandon his stand against the No-el scenario.

Angara himself was tight-lipped about his meeting with the President, prompting opposition senators, including Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., to demand an explanation from him.

Pimentel said Angara is briefing his opposition colleagues on the Palace meeting on Monday.

Padilla said he and other LDP congressmen asked their party boss about his second meeting with the President in two months, the first being on Dec. 20, 2002, before he left for Europe. "(Angara) told us that it was about Mrs. Arroyo’s call for cooperation among all sectors of society on programs to move the country forward. No politics, no Cha-cha," he said.

Padilla said Angara informed the President that LDP will have no problem cooperating with the administration and other groups on certain reforms that could turn the economy and the nation around, but that these should not call for scrapping the 2004 elections and Cha-cha before 2004.

"We will not deny the administration our hand of cooperation whenever it is needed. But we will not abandon our role as the opposition party. This has been our party’s track record," Padilla said.

Padilla recalled that during the Ramos years when LDP dominated the Senate and Angara was its president, opposition senators collaborated with then President Fidel Ramos on important economic reforms.

Such reforms enabled the national leadership then to achieve unprecedented economic growth that Mrs. Arroyo apparently wants to repeat.

Padilla said Ramos himself has on several occasions acknowledged the cooperation extended to him by the Angara-led Senate and by the House of Representatives, then led by incumbent Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. Unitary government

Meanwhile, Sen. John Osmeña, a proponent of federalism, said that desire for junking the presidential form of government is most palpable in the Visayas, Mindanao and other "neglected" areas of the Manila-based government.

Osmeña said that under the unitary form of government, decisions made in Manila generally focus on areas close to the capital, to the prejudice of areas located further away from the seat of government.

Osmeña asked, "why should we allow a person in an air-conditioned office in Manila to decide what is good for people in a remote place in the Visayas and Mindanao?"

He said this neglect by "Imperial Manila" has fueled the separatist movement in Mindanao and insurgencies elsewhere. "Mindanao has been contributing a sizable amount to national coffers, but is only getting a pittance in the budget," he said.

While Osmeña initially favored amending the Charter through the conversion of both chambers of Congress into a constituent assembly, he now favors holding a constitutional convention.

The Charter can no longer be amended by a constituent assembly because of the impossibility of getting the required three-fourths vote of the Senate (18 of 23 senators) to convene Congress into one. — With Efren Danao

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