MANILA, November 14, 2003  (STAR) By Paolo Romero Makati Rep. Agapito "Butz" Aquino challenged President Arroyo yesterday to drop out of the May 2004 presidential race to prove she is sincere in her calls for national reconciliation.

Aquino, secretary general of the opposition Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), said one of the causes of instability in the country is the President’s decision to renege on her Dec. 30, 2002 promise not to run in the presidential elections next year.

"Therefore, only by withdrawing from next year’s presidential race can (the) President show sincerity in her latest effort to forge national unity and give the economy a much-needed push," he said.

Aquino added that unless Mrs. Arroyo withdraws, "her offer of national reconciliation will always be open to suspicions of politicking and personal interest."

He stressed that while it is easy for Mrs. Arroyo to make the offer, "the question is, what is she willing to give up and sacrifice to secure it?"

Aquino challenged other elective officials to drop their political aspirations, saying the country needs "fresh leaders, fresh minds to conjure new programs and plans to support our development goals."

He said he is willing to forgo his plan to seek a third term as congressman of Makati’s second district to support a sincere call for national reconciliation.

Other members of the opposition are also challenging the President to back up her offer of national reconciliation by either stepping down or admitting to wrongdoing.

Former senator Francisco Tatad, chairman of the preparatory committee of the united opposition, called on Mrs. Arroyo to step down in the aftermath of last Wednesday’s violent dispersal of the rallyists in Makati City’s central business district.

"We demand that Mrs. Arroyo step down now to end the destructive conflict, the arrogance, oppression and plain hypocrisy that have inflamed the majority, and prevent an irreversible descent into chaos and anarchy," he said in a statement, adding the Supreme Court justices and the leaders of congress "graciously accompany" Mrs. Arroyo.

Tatad said only when these leaders resign can national reconciliation happen.

"No reconciliation can be founded on deceit, bad faith and a total perversion of the norms of morality and constitutionality. The resignation of the Arroyo government has become a conditio sine qua non for national unity," he said.

Tatad also asked the President to disown and condemn the "attack" on the rallyists, rescind her policy of zero tolerance and routine use of force against peaceful assemblies, and prosecute and punish those who took part in the "outrage in Makati."

Partido ng Manggagawa Rep. Renato Magtubo said what Mrs. Arroyo offered was not genuine reconciliation, which must be founded on justice wherein the economic, political and social concerns of workers, farmers, fisherfolk, women, children and indigenous peoples are addressed.

Palawan Rep. Abraham Mitra (LDP), for his part, said "reconciliation means having to say you’re sorry."

"Admission of wrong is the prerequisite for peace," he said.

One the other hand, the President vowed to pursue her offer of a "principled reconciliation" to her critics and political enemies despite the initial rejection of her attempts to mend fences.

"We must put a closure to our past national divisions and give ourselves a fresh start so that we can concentrate on changing society in a way that flourishes our future," she told participants at a forum held at De La Salle University in Dasmariñas, Cavite.

Mrs. Arroyo pointed out that "in the final analysis, it will be reforms and reconciliation that will heal the wounds of our divisiveness. It will be reform and reconciliation that will allow us to move forward… and that is the great connection between politics and prosperity."

The President’s "principled reconciliation," however, will have to wait until Davao Archbishop Fernando Capalla — one of the "facilitators" in her efforts to mend fences with anti-administration groups — returns to Manila next week, according to Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye.

Capalla, incoming president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, flew to Sydney, Australia for a vacation after he attended a "special" Cabinet meeting last Tuesday where he was one of two "resource" persons who discussed the theological aspects of Mrs. Arroyo’s reconciliation policy.

Bunye said the other resource person, Fr. Romeo Intengan, has yet to gain clearance from his superiors before accepting the President’s invitation to be one of her facilitators.

He noted that this offer of "principled reconciliation" will be extended to the camps of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and businessman Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco Jr.

However, Bunye refused to elaborate on how this principled reconciliation can be carried out with the two camps.

"Having agreed on some general principles, let us leave the principal players to do their job. We do not wish to preempt the facilitator. We can only express hope that this effort will be successful," he said.

Bunye noted that the President’s request for the assistance of a credible facilitator, which has never been done before, means that she "has gone one step further as far as reconciliation is concerned."

"We’re not saying the road to reconciliation is an easy path. It will take some time but the President is determined to start the process," he said.

Bunye quoted Intengan telling the President and other members of the Cabinet that "for this reconciliation to be authentic and morally acceptable, it should at least include the following commitments: sufficient acknowledgment of offenses committed against the common good, substantial restitution and reparation, and resistance from further activities that destabilize democracy and harm the common good."

Ilocos Norte Rep. Imee Marcos cautiously welcomed the call for reconciliation, saying it is not only her family, but the entire country, that needs closure on divisive issues.

"If this (call for reconciliation) is heartfelt and sincere, then it’s a wonderful birthday gift," said Marcos, who celebrated her 48th birthday last Wednesday. "Perhaps not only my family but our country needs closure on these issues."

She added that much time and resources have been expended on issues affecting her family even though she has been urging for a settlement from the beginning.

‘An Urgent Need For Reconciliation’

Meanwhile, Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. and other administration congressmen said there is an urgent need for reconciliation to enable the country to hurdle its numerous problems.

"A nation divided cannot hope to prosper and move forward, but will remain stagnant and mired in problems of its own making," he told The STAR. "We all should be honorable even with our political enemies."

De Venecia said the public is tired of the bickering among politicians and government institutions.

He also said that while most Filipinos fully support the Arroyo administration, there are still those who recognize former President Joseph Estrada as their leader.

De Venecia said the government can find ways to address these sentiments, noting that Estrada has been in detention for almost two years.

Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles of the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats urged all political parties to heed Mrs. Arroyo’s call for national reconciliation.

"The call for unity is never more needed than today when the nation stands divided and progress is on hold," he said. "Politics can either ruin us or strengthen us."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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