MANILA, January 9, 2004 (STAR) GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc - Joseph Estrada may be down on his aching knees, but he’s not out. The bad start of his bosom buddy Fernando Poe Jr.’s presidential run has given him a chance for a political comeback of his own.

Up to last week Estrada’s attention was solely on leaving jail for knee operation in the US. Having been granted court leave from plunder trial, he kept lawyers busy pleading for extension of the travel deadline so he could first visit his ailing mother. So engrossed was he about the trip details that he even haggled for reducing the police escorts from four to two. He figured that Poe didn’t really need him during the Feb.-May campaigning, which would have coincided with his surgery and recovery. "FPJ will win with our without me," he muttered.

But that was before Poe’s Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) crumbled within 24 hours of public announcement. Unexpectedly at the first chance, Estrada loyalists growled against Loren Legarda as vice presidential bet. Allies John Osmeña and Miriam Santiago jumped to the administration’s Senate slate. Kit Tatad and Imee Marcos wanted out too.

Suddenly Estrada became so important to Poe. He quickly arranged for his son Jinggoy and Ernie Maceda to fill in the slots vacated by Osmeña and Santiago. He then convinced Tatad and Marcos to see things through. Now, his old party spokesman Rufus Rodriguez is back from the marginalized camp of Panfilo Lacson, proclaiming that Estrada will stay at the risk of permanent paralysis to help Poe’s hobbling campaign. "He is working toward unifying the KNP and the (Lacson faction)," Rodriguez gushed, "he is the elder statesman, the unifying force of the opposition."

The decision to forgo surgery, though, wasn’t so much from heroism than heroics. While Rodriguez was drafting Estrada’s dramatic line "to not abandon his best friend at this stage when FPJ needs his help most," the boss’ wife, Sen. Loi Ejercito, already stated the real reasons in live radio interviews. The California surgeon, she rued, was charging $1.52 million (P84 million) for the clinical procedure alone, not including post-operative therapy. More than that, she admitted, a US consular officer had told her pointblank they won’t give Estrada a US visa. "They don’t want a domestic problem to be brought there," she shrugged, so her husband won’t bother to apply for it to avoid embarrassment of denial to a fallen head of state.

Estrada has thus settled back to make the most of it. That is, to try to reclaim leadership of the opposition. How he’ll do it is worth watching.

Poe’s campaign had started split among three factions. One group is led by Sen. Ed Angara, chairman of the dominant opposition party, Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino. With him are Senators Tito Sotto and Tessie Oreta, Poe’s spokesman and appointments planner, respectively, and most of the LDP regional chiefs – providing the all-important party machinery.

Another group, the FPJ for President Movement (FPJPM) consists of movie associates and relatives who had gathered five million signatures urging Poe to run. Wary of traditional politicians, they have been striving to distance him from both Angara and Estrada. On their bidding, a band of public administration professors at the University of the Philippines is crafting a platform that voters have been waiting for Poe to unravel.

Estrada’s third faction plunked in the initial campaign funds. It has warm bodies of campaigners from urban-poor loyalists. Once a part of it, Santiago has assailed Angara for plotting to be "surrogate president" if Poe wins, and the professors as well for "all the tutoring he’s getting (that will make) his presidency based on theories, not realities." Opting out of Poe’s ticket, she described him thus: "So new, so inexperienced, so lost."

The three groups have been elbowing each other out for the right to run Poe’s campaign. The FPJPM was able to keep Poe away from his own proclamation as KNP standard bearer. In that affair were Angara, Sotto, Oreta, Tatad, Maceda, Jinggoy, Juan Ponce Enrile – old faces that give FPJPM the creeps. But Angara has managed to swing Legarda, his recruit from the ruling Lakas party, as the VP candidate. Still, one of the U.P. tutors concedes, the faction that brings in the money will dictate the manner of the campaign.

For the meantime, that is the Estrada camp. Until the donations from businessmen start rolling in, his hidden wealth will tide Poe over. Estrada has lost his veteran fund-raiser, Manuel Zamora, to the Lacson camp. He is making do with loyalists Carmelo Santiago and Rod Reyes as campaign manager and spokesman for now.

The temptation will be strong for Estrada to turn Poe’s campaign into one that upholds the supposed legitimacy of his presidency until June 2004. His loyalists have hinted as much. The urban-poor leaders have demanded that Legarda explain her role in the downfall of Estrada in Jan. 2001. Tatad has said he will not campaign for Legarda but will only be civil to her when their trails meet. For him, three Supreme Court decisions upholding the legality of President Gloria Arroyo’s rise to president are not enough. Same with Santiago, although raising the issue now would only highlight her opportunism in running under the Arroyo team.

Problem is, harping on the past is no way to win votes from a people hankering for a better future. Estrada’s urge for self-aggrandizement won’t sit well with both Poe and Lacson whom he proposes to unite. Poe wants to project an image of independence from Estrada. Lacson, meanwhile, is running for the very same reason that Estrada is angling for control of the opposition – to escape prosecution for heinous crimes.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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