Malacanang, July 3, 2003 By Marichu Villanueva (Star) President Arroyo may run in next year’s presidential election if the "national interest" calls for it, one of her top advisers said yesterday.

"She has made that statement in December and I would think that she would act on the basis of the national interest rather than personal or any other interest," Mrs. Arroyo’s chief of staff Rigoberto Tiglao told an RPN-9 television talk show.

Mrs. Arroyo, who is being encouraged by political partymates to run, earlier said she would not change her mind.

There was no comment from the President about Tiglao’s statement.

During ceremonies marking the 56th anniversary of the Philippine Air Force at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, Mrs. Arroyo likened the presidency to "a pilot’s job."

"Once you take off, you cannot park in the clouds. You have to set your destination and stay the course no matter what you encounter up there," she told PAF personnel.

In a move that stunned the nation, Mrs. Arroyo announced last Dec. 30 in Baguio City that she was withdrawing from the 2004 polls so she could avoid political distractions as she tried to concentrate on revitalizing the sluggish economy during her remaining months in office.

Tiglao said that from a lame duck, which was the perception of the President by some quarters after her announcement, she has turned into "a soaring eagle."

Speculation about the President’s political plans were fueled further by her secret meeting early yesterday afternoon with businessman Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco Jr., who is being pushed by some of Mrs. Arroyo’s Lakas partymates to be their standard bearer.

No details of the meeting were immediately available. It was held in Metro Manila shortly after the President arrived from Marawi City and before she went to Villamor.

"A President without the baggage of re-election can move faster, hit harder and work to greater effect," she said in January.

Tiglao said Mrs. Arroyo’s decision to withdraw from the race left a possibility that she may change her mind.

"What the President said on December 30 is to set aside politics for a while so we can address the problems of our country. Once elections are there — OK, let’s take off by January or even February — that would be the time for politics," he said.

Many believe Mrs. Arroyo withdrew from the 2004 election because her popularity has been on the wane since she assumed the presidency after a military-backed popular uprising in January 2001 toppled Joseph Estrada, now on trial on plunder charges.

Mrs. Arroyo is serving the remainder of Estrada’s six-year term, which ends in June next year.

However, now that her opinion poll ratings have been going up, many believe Mrs. Arroyo may re-join next year’s race.

"If you remember, last year everyone was talking about a lame duck president. I haven’t even heard of anybody using that term lame duck then because, as some said it, it might be exaggerating. But now she’s a soaring eagle," Tiglao said.

The latest Social Weather Stations survey showed a 14-percent net approval rating for Mrs. Arroyo in the second quarter, from a negative 14 in the previous quarter.

Many in Mrs. Arroyo’s Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats party have been pushing her to reconsider her December decision to withdraw. But she insisted she would not change her mind, saying she should be true to her word. At least 84 Lakas-CMD congressmen have passed a resolution urging her to run.

Tiglao attributed Mrs. Arroyo’s rising public approval ratings to her efforts to revitalize the nation’s poverty-stricken economy.

"That means the President is picking up momentum, perhaps what she did last year are starting to bear fruit," as her projects provide affordable housing, funding for small businesses, and a ferry system to promote inter-island commerce, he said.

Tiglao denied allegations from the political opposition that Malacañang was orchestrating the clamor — especially among Lakas party members — for Mrs. Arroyo to get back into the race.

"You can’t do those projects overnight. They have been gestating, and now the people are feeling what these projects are," he said.

"What’s interesting in that rumor… is that is it a good reflection that more and more people, I believe, are starting to realize that the President is emerging as… the best bet in a given crisis."

Posters and streamers encouraging Mrs. Arroyo to run sprouted overnight in Manila not far from the presidential palace. The Metro Manila Development Authority was ordered to remove them, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said.

Lakas has been in a quandary on who to field in the presidential election after Mrs. Arroyo unexpectedly withdrew from the race.

Cojuangco, a close associate of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and now chairman of San Miguel Corp., is believed to be eyeing a second bid for the presidency.

Cojuangco lost in a multi-corner race in 1992, won by Fidel Ramos.

Cojuangco’s Nationalist People’s Coalition is a member of Mrs. Arroyo’s People Power Coalition, in which Lakas is the dominant party.

Before joining the alliance, the NPC was allied with the coalition of Estrada — Mrs. Arroyo’s nemesis — and switched sides shortly after his ouster in 2001.

Tiglao denied any knowledge about the meeting. "I’m not aware of that frankly," he said.

Ramos, chairman emeritus of Lakas, had reportedly endorsed Mrs. Arroyo as the party’s candidate — with former education secretary Raul Roco as her running mate — at cocktails last week in Malacañang.

Bunye denied there was a cocktail, which was attended by former President Corazon Aquino. "For the record, I never sponsored or hosted this meeting."

Ramos also denied attending the cocktail. Bunye showed a photocopy of the newspaper report (not The STAR) about the party on which Ramos had written a note on the margin: "This never, NEVER happened. Assuming there was such a cocktail party — FVR (his initials) was not there."

Commenting on the report, Roco said he would not settle for vice president.

He earlier said he would make a second bid for the presidency with or without an endorsement from the PPC, of which his Aksyon Demokratiko party is coalition member.

He ran and lost in the 1998 multi-candidate polls, won by Estrada, but placed a srong third on the strength of women and youth votes.

Roco believes Malacañang was behind the pro-Arroyo posters and streamers.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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