MANILA, January 29, 2004
(STAR) By Marichu Villanueva - President Arroyo urged big business yesterday to back her presidential bid, saying the Philippines could end up "the laughingstock of the world," unless she is given a full six-year mandate in this year’s elections.

Mrs. Arroyo told business leaders to support her presidential bid in May while dismissing her rival, actor Fernando Poe Jr., as an "untested gamble."

"You have a clear choice," Mrs. Arroyo told a group of private business organizations. "You can help unify the nation around sound economic leadership ... or you could take a gamble on untested leadership, poor governance, and the prospect of the Philippines once again being the laughingstock of the world."

Mrs. Arroyo, a 56-year-old US-educated economist, used the meeting with the country’s top business leaders to sell her economic credentials while warning them of the possible return of "failed governance" of her predecessor, deposed President Joseph Estrada, apparently referring to Poe.

Poe, an action movie star and high-school dropout with no political experience, has been leading voter surveys because of his popularity with the country’s poor.

The actor is a friend of Estrada, a fellow film star who was ousted amid massive street protests on corruption charges three years ago.

Mrs. Arroyo, then vice president, was sworn in to succeed Estrada. She is now seeking her own six-year mandate in the May 10 elections.

"My challenge to you business leaders, my challenge to you today is to think hard about the kind of Philippines that we want and join me in the fight for change that I have started," she said.

"I need you, the business leaders of our country. I need you to invest in the Philippines of tomorrow and not in the failed governance of yesterday. The choice is yours," the President said.

Over the three years of her administration, Mrs. Arroyo said she had created three million jobs, double those created in the previous three years, boasting that foreign investment was up 20 percent last year.

Inflation, at 3.1 percent, was the lowest in a generation, with industrial strikes at a 20-year low and wages rising 11.2 percent in real terms as market reforms created better-paying jobs, she said.

"These are only a start. We must do better and we will do better," she said.

However, critics say the economy has remained stagnant because of persistent fears of political instability, and the number of unemployed hasn’t changed at about 11 percent of the country’s population of 80 million.

Mrs. Arroyo sold herself to the business leaders by warning that "other investments" would reverse the gains made by her administration.

"We are already seeing how the forces of the past are holding our nation hostage and exploiting the fears of the masses. They are not fighting for change. They are fighting to reverse the course of history," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo spelled out her platform of government before leaders of Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), Philippines, Inc., Philippine Confederation Inc. and the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Inc. (FFCCI) during their joint membership meeting at the Manila Hotel yesterday.

"I will fight to lift millions out of poverty by creating six million new jobs in the next six years. High-paying jobs built on bringing into a national investment in the Philippines, making the Filipino entrepreneurs strong enough and courageous enough to put this money in this heightening investments, making investments in people in training and education and opening up markets for Philippine products around the world," Mrs. Arroyo said.

She noted with satisfaction that most of the business leaders share her aspirations for a brighter future for the country under her leadership, and to finally join the ranks of developed countries.

"We have wrested the economy from the precipice," she said, while warning that it could "just as easily fall backward" next May if she would not be elected president.

"The nation is at a crossroads, whether to move forward to (becoming) a modern, progressive nation or to move backward to the old formulas that led to the chaos that we inherited," Mrs. Arroyo said. - With Marianne Go

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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