Manila, July 5, 2003 By Jose Aravilla and Marichu Villanueva (Star) Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin clarified yesterday that "encouragement does not mean endorsement" of President Arroyo to seek a full six-year term in the presidential elections in May next year.

First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo said Sin urged the President to run in next year’s election instead of retiring. The call was made, Mr. Arroyo said, when he visited Sin yesterday to donate P1 million for priests and nuns — part of the proceeds from a recent golf tournament held in connection with his birthday last June 27.

"Please tell Gloria I insist that she runs," the First Gentleman quoted Sin as telling him during his visit to the Archbishop’s Palace on Shaw Boulevard in Mandaluyong City.

But Sin, in a statement issued by his office later yesterday, said the quote — attributed to him by a press release issued by the Office of the First Gentleman — "was a lighthearted comment to the First Gentleman, said in the course of an informal conversation over a mid-morning merienda."

Sin insisted that he does not endorse political candidates.

The archbishop explained that his encouragement of Mrs. Arroyo was in accordance with a statement he made last June 5, in which he expressed his belief that "the essence of democracy is that people are given a wide range of intelligent choices of candidates to electoral positions."

"I encourage qualified people. In my heart, I know that the President might not be the only good candidate for the position, there can be others. Good people, those who are honest, sincere, and committed to serve the country, should be encouraged to run for public office," Sin said in his June 5 statement.

Mr. Arroyo said he was "stunned but happy because the Cardinal has the gift of prophecy. That is his message to her, and I will convey his message to her."

He added that Sin "was the one who opened the subject, not me."

Mr. Arroyo was accompanied during his visit by Antonio Cabangon-Chua, newly confirmed ambassador to the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos; Benjamin Ramos, Chua’s executive assistant; Fr. Aris Sison, parish priest of Sta. Maria del Strada in La Vista, Quezon City, where the Arroyos live; Malacañang in-house photographer Nonilon Reyes and photographer Bibo Benida.

Sounding upbeat, Mr. Arroyo replied, "Of course, of course" when asked whether he thinks his wife would win.

He said that despite being a "declared non-candidate," Mrs. Arroyo ranked fourth in a recent survey of possible candidates, adding that she could overtake the top three contenders.

"If she declares her intention to run, that (lead by the other candidates over her) would mean nothing," Mr. Arroyo said.

He said the ailing cardinal, who is due to retire on his 75th birthday on Aug. 30, was in "good spirits" during their brief meeting at the Archbishop’s Palace.

Arroyo said Sin’s "prophecies" have come true in the past.

He recalled that during the turbulent days in late 2000 when then-President Joseph Estrada was facing an impeachment trial for corruption, Sin told Mrs. Arroyo, who was then vice president: "You better prepare already your inauguration speech because within a short time you’re going to be president."

On Jan. 20, 2001, she was sworn in as president amid massive anti-corruption protests that forced Estrada to abandon Malacañang. He is on trial for plunder, a capital offense.

Under the Constitution, presidents are allowed to serve only one term. But Mrs. Arroyo could seek her own six-year term, since she took over halfway through Estrada’s stint.

She surprised the nation last Dec. 30 when she announced in Baguio City she would not run, saying she was frustrated with political infighting and that she wanted to focus her remaining time in office on reforms and solving the nation’s problems without having to worry about votes.

Her husband said she still hasn’t changed her mind, and that her family will support her "whatever her decision."

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye thanked Sin for his "very encouraging words" but the Cardinal’s statement "will not distract the President from her course of action that is independent of political, partisan consideration."

During the group’s brief visit, Mr. Arroyo said Sin asked him about the possibility of his wife changing her mind about running in next year’s elections.

He quoted Sin asking him a string of questions like, "Is Gloria running? Is she campaigning already? Where does she get all the energy to go all over the countryside?"

When Sin asked him when Mrs. Arroyo would make her decision, Mr. Arroyo recalled saying, "I don’t know. Maybe October or November? I just don’t know. It’s really up to her."

"You know Gloria will get angry at me for telling you these things. But please, call up other people to get it straight from them who want her to run," the First Gentleman told The STAR.

Mr. Arroyo denied charges made by the opposition that he was allegedly behind the people who pasted crudely made "GMA 2004" posters and strung "Run GMA Run" streamers to posts along the Nagtahan, Sta. Mesa flyover near Malacañang.

"If I was the one doing those things, with so much money at my disposal, why should I just come out with those few posters and streamers?" he asked.

Mr. Arroyo claimed "the opposition are just panicking. They are the ones behind these intrigues because they are afraid that Gloria will really beat them if she decides to run."

The First Gentleman said his wife has remained focused on her job after she decided to declare herself as a non-candidate on Dec. 30 last year.

"Many believe in her. Perhaps, there is a real clamor for her to run. That’s why I was telling these businessmen to come out openly with their calls for her to run," he said.

Mr. Arroyo’s account of Sin’s statements was corroborated by Cabangon-Chua, who confirmed that Sin reiterated the controversial remark to their group as they were about to leave the Archbishop’s Palace yesterday.

"It was really unsolicited advice. It really came out from his feelings. Of course, he’s very sick but he believes the President is the only one who could really lead our country for the better," he said.

"Please extend my regards to the President. Tell her she’s needed by our country. I insist that she should run," Cabangon-Chua also quoted Sin as telling their group.

He pointed out that he is "apolitical. I’m a businessman. And I am now a member of the diplomatic corps. I am happy for this (Sin’s endorsement) because I think, as an appointee of the President, I think our country really needs continuity."

Cabangon-Chua owns Fortune Insurance Co., radio station dwIZ, Graphic magazine, among other business interests.

He said that the leaders of the Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry have already urged Mrs. Arroyo to reconsider her Dec. 30 declaration.

Presidential adviser on political affairs Hernani Braganza said that Sin’s remark "remains an advice" and reiterated that the President has not made any official statement replying to Sin’s encouragement.

He stressed though that if Mrs. Arroyo indeed decides to run, she should make known her final decision not later than Dec. 15 in order to give the Lakas-CMD party and its allies time to prepare.

Bunye, for his part, said there was nothing wrong if the Office of the First Gentleman issued an official press release to talk about a private exchange between Sin and Mr. Arroyo.

"We have no doubt whatsoever that these conversations took place," he said, adding that Mr. Arroyo was "only reporting, narrating what happened and (making) a statement of fact" of what took place.

"We’re gratified that the Cardinal really values the work that the President has done, to the extent that he’s encouraging the President to run," Bunye said.

He brushed aside criticisms that Sin’s statement smacked of the Church’s intrusion into politics.

"Everyone can express his opinion on this matter. I believe the Cardinal can express his personal comments just like any one of us in this particular regard," the spokesman said.

He also dismissed speculations that Sin’s statements were made after the First Gentleman gave a P1 million donation to the Church.

"I believe it was an unsolicited statement from the Cardinal. And we know the Cardinal doesn’t just give statements without thinking about them," Bunye said.

He added that he cannot fault Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople for saying that even members of the international community clamor for Mrs. Arroyo to seek a full six-year term in 2004 since "again, Ople is stating a fact."

Meanwhile, Vice President Teofisto Guingona, who celebrated his 75th birthday yesterday, said he was not ruling out a run for the presidency next year.

"It may include that," he told reporters when asked about his political plans. "But I have not said that yet."

Appointed vice president and foreign secretary by Mrs. Arroyo in February 2001, Guingona left the Cabinet last year after publicly disagreeing with her on the deployment of US anti-terror troops in the southern Philippines. — With reports from AP, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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