MANILA, January 5, 2004 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - Today it’s President Arroyo’s turn to file her certificate of candidacy. With the battle lines drawn, all sectors must work to ensure that the elections in May will be orderly, honest and credible.

Why? Because this early, we are already hearing some characters in the opposition claiming that it’s all over but the cheating. They say that with a sure winner as their standard bearer – sorry, Senator Ping, they’re talking about Fernando Poe Jr. – the only way President Arroyo can win a six-year term in May is through poll fraud.

If the confusion that has reigned in the opposition persists through May, however, there’s a good chance that candidate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will win a clear mandate, without anyone needing to fiddle with poll results.

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Watching the intramurals in the opposition, one is reminded of those sci-fi movies where gadgets start squeaking: "This machine will self-destruct in 20 minutes…"

As of early last night no one was sure which party former Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago would finally join. Lakas, together with Sen. John Osmeña? Would she be Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s running mate? Now that’s a tantalizing teamup. Miriam is certainly better known than someone named Herminio Aquino.

FPJ’s Senate slate seems to be falling apart following his choice of Senate Majority Leader Loren Legarda as his running mate. So much for the coalition of national unity.

The uncertainty in the opposition is aggravated by the confusion over who is supposed to speak for the speechless FPJ. Sen. Tito Sotto is supposed to be the official spokesman. So what’s the role of Joseph Estrada’s former press secretary, Rod Reyes? Well, he’s not FPJ’s spokesman – that was all that someone in the FPJ camp could tell us. So what is Reyes’ role, exactly? He’s just trying to help. In what way? Uh … why don’t we get the final word from FPJ? But that’s like talking to a wall.

Erap’s campaign handlers in 1998 were so much better organized. If the opposition’s campaign gets any more disorganized than this, both the FPJ and Lacson camps can kiss their dreams of Malacañang goodbye.

The confusion is making some people in rival camps cling hopefully to initial rumors that FPJ will back out of the race at the last minute, when he gets enough concessions from whoever he thinks will win in May. But if FPJ ever considered that last year, I think he has junked the idea. His wife Susan Roces, for one, is looking more and more like a first lady in waiting every day.

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Malacañang can only exult over the disarray in the opposition. But President Arroyo’s handlers are realistic; they said last week that they did not intend to match the SRO crowd that showed up last Friday outside the Commission on Elections (Comelec) main office when FPJ filed his certificate of candidacy.

If Malacañang exerted enough effort, I’m sure the GMA camp could match the size of that crowd when she files her certificate of candidacy today. But I don’t think such excitement and lusty cheers for FPJ can ever be enjoyed by candidate GMA – or any other presidential aspirant, for that matter. That excitement could only have been generated by the king of Philippine movies, and he would generate such adulation wherever he goes in this country, whether or not he’s a candidate.

The question is whether such adulation will translate into votes come May. After movie star Joseph Estrada’s catastrophic presidency, have we learned our lesson? In the first elections after EDSA II, some of the most popular movie stars lost: Nora "Ate Guy" Aunor, Bong Revilla, Rudy Fernandez. Erap’s camp happily noted though that Ate Guy and Bong were among the few movie stars who had defected to EDSA.

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So with FPJ and Lacson dividing the opposition votes, why would the administration have to cheat?

Also, even if Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos was (is?) a member of the administration Lakas-Christian Muslims Democrats party, the poll body is supposed to be independent.

In my mail that piled up while I was abroad I found a letter from Abalos, reassuring me, in so many words, that the Comelec is up to the job. Reacting to one of my previous columns, Abalos said the long lines for voter registration and validation last year were due to the Filipino penchant for doing everything at the last minute (true enough). The Comelec had enough computers and "mobile data capture" machines, he wrote.

He also would not consider the registration for absentee voting a failure, describing as "a good start" the list-up of only 362,811 out of an estimated 7 million Filipinos overseas.

"Lastly," he wrote, "the Comelec is ready and capable of implementing automated elections nationwide, as is prescribed by the law." But he said the Senate and the House of Representatives submitted a joint resolution prescribing selective implementation of the automation, "for reasons which our Senators and Congressmen hold valid."

"To this day, the Comelec, along with the nation, is still ‘holding its breath’ awaiting the next moves of Congress on the amendment of the Modernization Law," Abalos wrote.

Do you feel reassured, Maguindanao Rep. Didagen Dilangalen?

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Don’t worry, Chairman Abalos. If the warring opposition camps continue on the path of self-destruction, it will be difficult for them to cry fraud if either of their candidates loses in May.

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LEMONS: Beware of lemons. Former Manila police chief and vice mayor James Barbers (the better Barbers, we often say) is fuming over a Hilux van he bought last July from Toyota Cubao. The brand-new van’s engine conked out on July 26 on a highway outside Metro Manila. It took over three months before the van was finally towed back to the dealership. Barbers said Toyota’s technical group recommended that the company replace the defective engine. Since November Barbers has been told that the engine is still being imported from Japan. To this day he still can’t use his brand-new van.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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