[PHOTO: RIDING INTO THE SUNSET? President Arroyo and First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo walk on the beach of Palawan during a recent holiday on the island. - REVOLI CORTEZ ]

MANILA, September 10, 2003  (STAR)  By Paolo Romero  - To stave off political instability and spare President Arroyo and the ruling coalition from further scandal, an administration congressman recommended yesterday that the President file a suit for legal separation from her husband.

Valenzuela Rep. Magtanggol Gunigundo Jr. said the Jose Pidal scandal involving First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo is taking such a heavy toll on the presidency that Mrs. Arroyo should file for legal separation from her husband so she and the ruling party can be spared from the political fallout from the incessant sniping of the opposition led by Sen. Panfilo Lacson.

Gunigundo said many leaders and members of the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats party feel scandalized by the allegations against the First Gentleman. They are also aggrieved that the President and Lakas-CMD have been dragged into the controversy, Gunigundo said.

"I’m not for the dissolution of marriage or the destruction of a family, only the filing of a case for legal separation or a petition of separation of property to dissolve conjugal assets, which is provided for in the Family Code," he said.

Gunigundo’s statement, however, is not the official stand of the ruling party, Lakas national spokesman Heherson Alvarez emphasized.

A majority of Lakas members, Alvarez said, remain fully supportive of the President, whom he described as "wounded in the heart."

Alvarez has asked Gunigundo not to prejudge the First Gentleman on the Jose Pidal controversy. "The public issue in this Jose Pidal scandal is still unfolding. We have yet to get to the bottom of this case and fully comprehend it."

Alvarez declined to comment on Gunigundo’s recommendation that the President file for legal separation from the First Gentleman. "We do not wish to compound Mrs. Arroyo’s public burden in a matter where her husband seems very much in the position to handle and defend himself," he said.

The Jose Pidal controversy is a "non-party issue," Alvarez said, as he called on his partymates to "support a hardworking President who is under siege by formidable and partisan political forces."

Gunigundo also said the nature of the First Couple’s relationship has put a conjugal spin on the Jose Pidal scandal and dragged the ruling coalition led by Lakas into the imbroglio, causing some political instability.

He said the party members are solidly behind the President and want to help, but their "hands are tied."

"We (Lakas leaders and members) are suffering in silence," Gunigundo said. "Many of us want to help — even if (the matter) does not involve a single Lakas member — but we don’t know anything."

Right To Privacy

In Makati City, the First Gentleman invoked his right to privacy in refusing to answer reporters’ questions on whether or not he would accompany the President on her foreign trips.

"Please respect my rights also," he said with a weary smile.

The First Gentleman met briefly with the press at LTA Building on Perea street in Makati.

The First Gentleman’s lawyer, Jesus Santos, reacted with shock at the Gunigundo recommendation when reporters questioned him on the matter. "My God! Why would Congress inject the private affairs of the couple in this issue?" he asked.

Household staff at the Palace told The STAR that there is no truth to rumors that the First Gentleman has been sent out of the presidential residence after accusations of his "philandering" with his secretary, Victoria Toh, were aired by Lacson. Lacson made this accusation as part of his expose which resulted in the Jose Pidal scandal.

Amid the storm battering their marriage of 35 years, the First Couple still say their daily novenas and pray the rosary together, sources said.

The Arroyos celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary on Aug. 2 at a very private party at the Palace organized by their three children and daughter-in-law.

Refusing to be named, household staff from the Palace said the First Couple are always together at the Malacañang chapel for their daily morning Mass and to pray the rosary and novenas.

Devout Roman Catholics, the Arroyos even occasionally engage in fasting as a form of sacrifice in their petitions for divine intervention, the sources said.

At the height of the Jose Pidal scandal, the President declared she is "married to the country" as she reassured the public that she would not be distracted from her official tasks as Chief Executive by Lacson’s expose.

Quoting from the Bible, the President reaffirmed her commitment to serving the country with a prayer: "Here I am, Lord. It is I, Lord. I have heard you calling me by name. I will go, Lord, where you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart. Your people, Lord, are the Filipino people. God Bless the Philippines."

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye refused to comment on the unsolicited advice issued by Gunigundo. "I have yet to talk to (Gunigundo) if he really said that. He might be joking only or it was an off-the-cuff remark."

Press Secretary Milton Alingod and presidential deputy chief of staff Roberto Capco separately confirmed that the President and First Gentleman are "stronger" now, even as they weather this personal and political crisis.

To Go, Or Not To Go

Malacañang officials preparing for the President’s official trips to New York, Rome and Paris from Sept. 25 to 30 have yet to confirm whether the First Gentleman will be able to join his wife as her official escort.

Bunye told Palace reporters there is nothing definite yet regarding the inclusion or exclusion of the First Gentleman from the President’s official party on her foreign trips.

Bunye said the arrangements for the President’s scheduled trips to New York and Europe are still "tentative" and are subject to change. "We don’t have the details at this time."

"(The President) is unwavering in her commitment to travel on behalf of Philippine interests and nothing will deter her," Bunye said. "She is confident in the state of the nation, the direction of the economy and the prospects for peace."

He added that the President "is focused first and foremost on the needs of the Philippine people in the areas of economic growth and prosperity and in pursuing peace. Her travel plans will be driven by these objectives."

According to Bunye, the President kicks off her travels with a trip to New York to address the 58th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 26.

"I believe the presence of the President there would be a good indication of the keen interest of the Philippines in really getting this seat at the UN Security Council," Bunye said.

After an overnight stay in New York, Mrs. Arroyo will fly to the Vatican for a state visit and for a meeting with Pope John Paul II, he added. "This visit to the Pope is very important as far as our religious ties are concerned."

From Rome, the President flies to Paris to address the 32nd General Conference of the UN Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

"UNESCO is another important body to which we relate and I believe the presence of the President there is very important," Bunye said.

While she is pushing through with her travels to New York and Europe, the President’s original plans to fly to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were canceled and may be reset, he added. "The President will keep all of her foreign commitments and will not be deterred from pursuing better economic and security relations with our foreign friends and allies." — With Sammy Santos, Nikko Dizon, Marichu Villanueva

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved