MALACANANG, OCTOBER 6, 2003 (STAR) By Mayen Jaymalin  - The backlash has begun but she’s ready for it.

Barely a day after changing her mind and declaring she would stand in next May’s election, President Arroyo said she was willing to take the flak if it would be for the country’s greater good.

"She is prepared to take criticism against her because of her decision (to run for the presidency in 2004)," Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said, because the President "believes that the welfare of the country is of higher interest."

Bunye also said Mrs. Arroyo was already the target of a smear campaign even before she announced her bid for the presidency last Saturday before a crowd of 50,000 in her home province of Pampanga.

Opposition politicians yesterday called Mrs. Arroyo "a liar" for breaking a public pledge not to run in next year’s presidential elections, and predicted she would be trounced by Filipino voters who value word of honor.

The President ended months of intense speculation Saturday when she announced before a large crowd at Expo Pilipino that she was deferring her pledge to retire from politics when her term ends on June 30.

On Dec. 30, 2002, the President announced she would not contest the presidential vote in 2004 and would, instead, focus her energy on nation-building and reform programs.

The President, Bunye added, is prepared to do everything for the country, "even if she has to visit infrastructure projects that would help the people in the farthest corner of our country."

He said objections to Mrs. Arroyo’s final decision to abandon her retirement plans and run in the May 2004 elections are only coming from a few people.

She "would not expect 100 percent approval (of her decision)," he said in a radio interview. "What is important is that a greater number of people agree (with) and support her decision."

"I changed my mind because there is a higher cause to change society in a way that it flourishes our future," the President said Saturday.

"Even the President said she is willing to accept the ridicule and criticisms as a result of her decision," Bunye said.

He also belied allegations that the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD) already bolted from the

People Power Coalition following Mrs. Arroyo’s declaration she would run for president in 2004.

The President said she’d gained experience necessary for reforms, citing her administration’s accomplishments in fighting drug and crime syndicates, poverty and high-level graft, as well as seeking peace with Muslim and communist rebels.

‘Palabra de honor’

"It’s bad to lie. We should set an example to our people, especially to children," said House Minority Leader Carlos Padilla (NPC, Nueva Vizcaya). "If you want to violate your word, you can always offer 1,001 reasons."

Mrs. Arroyo’s announcement is expected to set off intense political infighting in the country, which is known for its rowdy politics. It has also raised concerns of possible delays in government-proposed legislation - including the approval of next year’s national budget - because of closer scrutiny by opposition legislators.

Sen. Edgardo Angara, president of the opposition Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) party, said the President fooled Filipinos with "a masquerade, a charade," and predicted she would lose in the May 10 elections.

LDP stalwart Sen. Rodolfo Biazon said her changed decision would turn off a lot of Filipinos who value honesty.

Former senator Raul Roco, who has emerged as a strong presidential contender in popularity surveys, said Mrs. Arroyo’s credibility would suffer.

He urged Filipinos to guard against the President’s possible use of government resources and funds in early campaigning.

Opposition Sen. Teresa Aquino-Oreta said "electing Mrs. Arroyo to a full term would only mean six more years of the same kind of policy drift and political schism that had, in the first place, pushed our country closer to the brink of a political and economic crisis."

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said the President missed her chance of having a glorious place in history by breaking her vow not to run in 2004. "She should have stood by her decision not to run. It (would have been) the honorable thing to do. She should go out in a blaze of glory and, to achieve this, she should spend her remaining months in office healing the wounds of political discord, uniting the nation and putting in place lasting reforms."

One Asian diplomat said investors take heart from dependable policies, but Mrs. Arroyo must win a big mandate to push economic and anti-corruption reforms that still have "a long way to go."

"If she’s prepared to spend political capital and complete the agenda that she set out to when she first came to power, then giving her more time would be good," the diplomat said.

The labor sector also welcomed the President’s declaration of her intent to run in 2004.

"The labor sector will be closely listening and we hope that all political camps follow the tone and start presenting their platforms of governance and stay away from the usual personality-based, intrigue-laced and socially destructive practice of political mudslinging," the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) said in a statement.

"We want to hear what is in (it) for the labor sector," TUCP spokesman Alex Aguilar said, underscoring the need for candidates to tackle urgent issues, such as employment generation, economic reforms and political renewal.

TUCP also expressed the hope that other yet undeclared presidential aspirants, including businessman Eduardo Cojuangco and actor Fernando Poe Jr. will announce their decisions to run or not to run for president soon. The list of declared presidential aspirants include: Roco, Lacson and opposition Sen. Gregorio Honasan. – With Jess Diaz, AFP, AP, Reuters

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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