Manila, July 12, 2003 By Jess Diaz and Marichu Villanueva (Star) First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo has been brainstorming with his golfing buddies to map out a strategy for President Arroyo in next year’s elections and keep their grip on Malacañang, a former senator said yesterday.

Ernesto Maceda, who is also former ambassador to Washington and a key adviser of potential candidate Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), said the meetings were held at the Macapagal residence at Forbes Park in Makati City.

"The First Gentleman has said so (that the President is running) many times in the last few weeks. In fact, he and his Wack-Wack Golf cronies and other allies have convened planning and strategy sessions in the Macapagals’ Forbes Park home," Maceda added.

Mr. Arroyo, however, was quick to deny this. "That’s not true!" he told The STAR. "Did (Maceda) see me there?"

If indeed there have been meetings at the Macapagal residence with him present, Mr. Arroyo explained it is because the house is half-owned by his wife.

"For his (Maceda’s) information, I have a right to go to that house, too, because I am the husband of the President," the First Gentleman pointed out.

"We’re not planning anything. But next time I hold a tea party there, I will make sure that he (Maceda) gets invited," he said.

Maceda named the golf cronies who were allegedly present at a "tea party" in the Macapagal home on July 4: chairman Ephraim Genuino of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., Al Cusi of the Philippine Ports Authority, Light Rail Transit Authority chief Teddy Cruz, and Manila International Airport Authority general manager Edgar Manda.

"These are his protégés in the different government corporations in the steering committee on campaign," Maceda said, without revealing his sources, stressing the opposition has its own DPAs (deep penetration agents).

Cojuangco, the billionaire businessman nearing a decision to run in next year’s presidential elections, appears to be distancing himself from Mrs. Arroyo.

He doesn’t like the idea of meeting again with the President, whom he now considers as a candidate, officials of his NPC told a news conference yesterday.

They were commenting on the proposal of Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. that Cojuangco and Mrs. Arroyo meet to discuss who between them would run in next year’s elections.

"We see no purpose to be served by such a meeting. It would be presumptuous for Ambassador Cojuangco to discuss presidential candidacies with President Arroyo," Maceda, NPC president (emeritus), said.

He said Cojuangco and the NPC now consider Mrs. Arroyo as a candidate and as an opponent in case the businessman eventually decides to seek the presidency again.

Maceda pointed out that even former President Fidel Ramos and De Venecia believe that Mrs. Arroyo has decided to break her Dec. 30, 2002 promise not to run or they would not be egging her to clear up the situation.

Maceda also said US President George Bush won’t endorse Mrs. Arroyo when he visits the country later this year.

"I am sure there will be no endorsement of PGMA (President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo)," he said.

At the same time, he said Cojuangco is "acceptable" to the US as evidenced by the invitation given to him to attend the July 4th reception at the US Embassy in Manila.

Mr. Arroyo, however, was incredulous when informed of Maceda’s latest disclosures.

"Grabe naman! Ano ba yan? I dunno what they’re talking about. I am just involved in sports and charity activities," the lawyer said.

"Did she (Mrs. Arroyo) say she would run? They themselves were the ones saying that for her," he said.

The First Gentleman also took strong exception to his supposed motives to prod his wife to change her Dec. 30 decision by revealing to media, through the issuance of a press release of the private conversation he had with Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, that the prelate told her to run.

"It’s not me who’s saying those things. They should ask the people themselves who want the President to run," Mr. Arroyo said.

At the Palace, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye also rejected the proposed summit between Mrs. Arroyo and Cojuangco.

"The stand of the Palace is firm on this. The President has made her announcement. Her decision has not changed so any action that will sidetrack the President’s announced intention to really govern is already a non-issue," Bunye said.

Two weeks ago, the President initiated a meeting with Cojuangco, who chairs food and beverage giant San Miguel Corp. The meeting took place at the Villamor Air Base upon Mrs. Arroyo’s return from a provincial trip.

No details about what the two discussed were announced. But two days later, Malacañang officials told reporters that the President met with Cojuangco to urge him to stop his 62 NPC congressmen from ousting De Venecia.

However, NPC congressmen and De Venecia’s own allies said the Speaker was not at any time in danger of losing his House post. Their claims prompted some opposition congressmen to remark that Mrs. Arroyo and Cojuangco must have discussed other matters, including the fate of billions in coconut levy funds.

Maceda and Sorsogon Rep. Francis Escudero also clarified reports about whether their political party is part of the administration People Power Coalition (PPC).

"We were never a part of PPC. We are in coalition with the ruling Lakas and other political groups only in the House of Representatives," said Escudero.

Asked whether Cojuangco, in case he decides to run, would be an opposition or an administration candidate, the two NPC officials declared that "he will be the candidate of the NPC and all those who want to join us, whether from the administration or opposition camps."

Maceda also commented on the statement of presidential political adviser Hernani Braganza warning politicians eyeing the presidency of premature campaigning or electioneering.

"Look at your backyard first. We invite you to Danding’s listening tour stops. You will see that Danding is not soliciting votes or campaigning. It is the audience that is soliciting him to run," he said.

He announced that Cojuangco and his NPC group will be touring Bohol today and that the arrangements there have been organized by former senator Ernesto Herrera, his brother Julius, who is vice governor, and the province’s three congressmen. The organizers all belong to Lakas.

Bunye, meanwhile, said the Lakas-CMD has already formed two committees to conduct the screening and selection of their candidates for the local and national elections and another for the vice presidential and presidential bets.

"So the process has already started," the spokesman said.

Bunye also confirmed previous statements by Braganza that the President has already called the attention of her political spokesmen to put an end to all speculations about her 2004 bid.

"And these Palace officials who say otherwise have already been explicitly ordered," he said.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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