[PHOTO AT LEFT: President Arroyo presents her running mate, Sen. Noli de Castro, during the launching of her new party K-4, for Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan sa Kinabukasan, before they filed their certificates of candidacy at the Commission on Elections main office in Manila yesterday morning. Partly hidden at left is Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. - Revoli Cortez]

MANILA, January 6, 2004 (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva and Jose Aravilla - Banking on the experience she gleaned from her "good start" over the past three years, President Arroyo launched yesterday her bid to win her own presidential term and implement "unprecedented changes" in the next six years.

Fresh from a prayer vigil at the Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, Manila, Mrs. Arroyo told a crowd of thousands at the cathedral square Plaza Roma that she will implement such changes with the help of a new political group called Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan sa Kinabukasan, or K-4.

Accompanied by her running mate Sen. Noli de Castro and seven of the coalition’s 12 senatorial candidates, Mrs. Arroyo said "unprecedented changes" will include a shift to a parliamentary and federal form of government.

"It will take time and resolve to overcome the strong forces trying to divide us," Mrs. Arroyo told her supporters before filing her certificate of candidacy.

"But K-4 stands for resolve, K-4 stands for clout. K-4 stands for the experience to change the economy, to do the unprecedented changes that will make us more secure, that will strengthen our families, that will stamp out corruption. K-4 can do it for the future of the average Filipino," she said.

The new coalition consists of the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD), Liberal Party (LP) and a surprise political partner, the People’s Reform Party (PRP) of former senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

"I am married to our country," Mrs. Arroyo declared anew during the brief program at Plaza Roma.

"With you, we are working for change for the ordinary Filipino, to bring food to the table, housing, health, good education," she said.

"We had a good start. For a short period, we turned around the economy, stabilized the chaos we inherited and achieved unprecedented progress in providing land (to the landless)," the President added.

Dressed in a light blue dress, Mrs. Arroyo said her administration used foreign policy to bring in more investment, create jobs and increase salaries.

"These are down payments. But there is a need for additional installments. We need to do more," she told the cheering crowd, many of them from Mrs. Arroyo’s home province of Pampanga.

Senatorial Ticket

Mrs. Arroyo also introduced the K-4’s senatorial ticket, led by re-electionist Senators Robert Barbers and Robert Jaworski Jr. The two senators had filed their candidacies earlier and were not at the coalition’s brief program in front the Manila Cathedral.

Present at the program were former trade secretary Manuel Roxas II, former tourism secretary Richard Gordon, former Videogram Regulatory Board chairman Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr., Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao Gov. Parouk Hussin, Pampanga Gov. Manuel "Lito" Lapid, former defense secretary Orlando Mercado and lawyer Pia Cayetano, daughter of the late Lakas-CMD stalwart Sen. Renato Cayetano.

The three remaining senatorial berths were to be taken by former opposition Senators Rodolfo Biazon, who is now an LP member; John Henry Osmeña and Santiago, who had been negotiating to be the running mate of opposition candidate Sen. Panfilo Lacson.

Santiago was supposed to have been drafted as the vice presidential bet of movie actor Fernando Poe Jr. but was instead asked to run for senator under Poe’s Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP).

Santiago, however, declined because, she said, she could not run in the same ticket with the likes of former administration Sen. Loren Legarda whom Poe eventually selected as his running mate.

Mrs. Arroyo, on the other hand, persuaded Santiago over the weekend to run under the administration ticket.

After speaking to the crowd, the President, De Castro and the senatorial candidates marched to the nearby Commission on Elections (Comelec) building just across the cathedral and registered their candidacies, ending a program that began even before dawn.

The program began at 4 a.m. with a prayer vigil inside the Manila Cathedral which was attended by the President and First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, their children and children-in-law.

Mrs. Arroyo proceeded to Plaza Roma after the Mass and then to the Comelec to file her candidacy along with the other K4 candidates.

Behind the Coalition

The K-4 rally was a model of campaign organization with the police efficiently re-routing traffic on all roads leading to the Comelec and the Department of Tourism (DOT) replacing all its promotion posters with pictures of the President and De Castro.

But the machinery behind organization, sources revealed, was not even finalized almost until the last minute.

In fact, LP secretary general and Tarlac Rep. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III was still questioning LP’s coalition with Lakas-CMD until late Sunday night, only a few hours before the pre-dawn prayer vigil.

"There was really a heated debate," confirmed Biazon, who was sworn in as LP member during that contentious meeting on Sunday.

"(But) when the majority ruled, we had a unanimous decision to support President Arroyo," Biazon told The STAR.

The crux of the debate was whether LP should forge an alliance with Lakas-CMD or insist on a "unity ticket" with Mrs. Arroyo running for president and former education secretary Raul Roco running for vice president.

"All I’m saying is, for the sake of national interest, President Arroyo and Roco should join forces together because FPJ is way ahead in the surveys. It would be better for the country if the two of them join together," Aquino admitted during the Plaza Roma program.

He also admitted having insisted on the unity ticket during the party caucus on Sunday, a position bitterly opposed by Arroyo’s allies in the LP, Roxas and Michael Defensor, her campaign spokesman.

"President Arroyo told us she was open to it but it was Roco who (took) the hard line and a closed mind. So that prodded us to support her instead," Aquino said.

Other LP sources, however, said Aquino was outvoted in the caucus with LP senior members reprimanding Aquino for asking the party to renege on their commitment to support Mrs. Arroyo.

Bandwagon Effect

Meanwhile, members of the ruling Lakas-CMD rallied to their standard bearer and said that the President’s filing of her candidacy will create a bandwagon effect for the administration’s electoral campaign.

Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles claimed more leaders of credibility and quality will bolt the opposition and join K4 because of the infighting and opportunism in the ranks of the opposition.

"The President’s filing of certificate of candidacy which seals her quest for a full six-year term is the signal they have been waiting to formalize their allegiance to her and her ticket," Nograles said in a statement.

Antique Rep. Exequiel Javier, for his part, claimed "these leaders will be committing political suicide if they remain with a political organization that is in complete disarray."

At the same time, Lakas-CMD lawmakers also expressed support for the K4 senatorial line-up and described the slate as a fulfillment of the unity and reconciliation pledged by Mrs. Arroyo.

"Their experience and performance were paramount considerations, rather than their personal affiliation. This ensures their effectiveness in helping steer the country to prosperity in the next six years," said Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano.

Albano said the slate was product of careful selection from among the talents of the coalition and the opposition.

"The coalition burned the midnight oil to come up with a lineup worthy of support from us and the people," Albano added. — With reports from AP, AFP, Paolo Romero, Mayen Jaymalin

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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