[PHOTO AT LEFT: WIDENING GAP: Estranged allies President Arroyo and Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. are shown in deep prayer during the 75th birthday anniversary of retired Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin in Mandaluyong City last August. - Revoli Cortez]

MANILA, March 13, 2004  (STAR) By Sammy Santos - Breaking whatever ties he has left with the Arroyo administration, Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. has reportedly accepted Fernando Poe Jr.’s offer to be his adviser on "governance and national policy" if the actor-turned-politician wins the hotly contested May presidential race.

President Arroyo’s estranged vice president is expected to announce his decision to jump to Poe’s camp at a joint press briefing with the action star today, sources told The STAR.

Guingona agreed after Poe reiterated his offer last week and sent the Vice President a letter saying that Poe’s Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) was adopting several advocacies of Guingona’s Bangon! (Rise!) reform movement.

Among them are reforms in the pork barrel system, a law banning political dynasties, greater autonomy for local officials, protection of the national patrimony, a strong drive against crime and corruption, creation of a fund for Filipino overseas workers, and efforts "to make us proud to be a Filipino."

"He and FPJ met recently and they immediately felt comfortable with each other, and they saw that their programs and platforms jived," a KNP official said.

"We welcome his help and advice," said another KNP source.

Poe’s campaign manager Sen. Vicente Sotto III, however, said the report about Guingona joining them was just "talk." Sotto did not elaborate.

On the other hand, KNP spokesman Mike Romero said "the Vice President is with us" and Poe considers Guingona one of his "valued advisers."

KNP senatorial candidate Salvador Escudero III said Guingona’s decision to cross over said something about Mrs. Arroyo’s governance.

"This is a big thing that Mrs. Arroyo should not ignore. Remember that she chose Mr. Guingona to be her Vice President (in 2001)," Escudero said.

Sources close to the Vice President said Poe had been consulting with Guingona since Poe announced last November that he would run for president. The two reached a "meeting of the minds" as early as December, the sources said.

Guingona reportedly agreed to serve as Poe’s adviser because he believed that Filipinos want "leadership by example."

But Guingona delayed announcing his decision to join Poe’s camp to determine how it would affect Bangon, a non-partisan group advocating reforms, sources added.

Guingona earlier said he would have to resign from Bangon if he agreed to join Poe’s camp.

He joined the group as its head shortly after he quit the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats party in October, complaining about the slow pace of reforms as well as policy disagreements with Mrs. Arroyo.

Guingona also complained of the lack of administration support for his projects such as support programs for the millions of Filipinos working overseas and the development of Mindanao, which remained the country’s poorest region mainly because of the decades-long Muslim insurgency, his aides said.

Guingona quit Lakas a day before Mrs. Arroyo’s Oct. 5 decision to rejoin the presidential race.

Mrs. Arroyo appointed Guingona as vice president in early 2001 after she replaced Joseph Estrada, who was booted out by a popular uprising following allegations of massive corruption. Guingona was also given the foreign affairs portfolio.

Guingona resigned from the post in July 2002 over differences with Mrs. Arroyo on the deployment of US troops in Mindanao.

Poe sought Guingona out last December for advice on "various national issues, including the need to unite the country and the importance of good governance."

Guingona said he would think about Poe’s invitation.

In a television interview in February, Poe revealed he has tapped Guingona to be one of his economic advisers.

Poe’s candidacy has spooked the capital markets because of the high school dropout’s lack of experience and his failure to adequately explain his program of government.

"I am convinced that he is a good and honest man who is fairly gifted with native intelligence," Guingona said about his first impression of Poe after their December meeting.

"Character is very vital for anyone who would lead a nation. Sincerity and honest are indispensable. While experience in the job is a good norm, it can be a plus or a minus. If one’s record in office is bad, what good is experience?"

Guingona told a forum on governance last Wednesday the country’s next president must have the determination to implement reforms needed to solve the country’s problems.

"Sincerity and political will" are the key traits the winner of the May 10 presidential race must possess.

In his keynote speech, Guingona said "the demand from the political leadership is not only to rebuild the economy but also to stem the cauldron of corruption that even now erodes the soul of the Filipino."

"Our vision is to see this nation move forward, to see the Filipino snap out from a creeping sense of doubt and despair, to see him take up the challenge of degrading poverty and unemployment, and to infuse into himself the spirit of sacrifice and self-reliance," he said.

Guingona challenged all presidential candidates to bare their stand on such issues as the national patrimony, corruption, crime, economic recovery, and political dynasties.

He said that all candidates must be ready with a program on how to "rebuild a nation seemingly lost in the wake of globalization."

In an apparent attempt to regain lost ground in opinion polls, Poe released a booklet last Tuesday outlining his long-awaited program of government.

He promised to restore trust and confidence in government and fight poverty.

Appealing to the poor — Poe’s main electoral base — the 24-page booklet promises to provide Filipinos with "minimum basic needs," ensure that the government "lives within its means" and protect the "most vulnerable sectors."

Poe has lost an early opinion poll lead to fall in alongside Mrs. Arroyo — an economist who played a key role in the Philippines’ 1995 accession to the World Trade Organization.

Poe has since lost a nine percentage-point lead as the surging Mrs. Arroyo drew level two months before the vote.

He has avoided events where he might be questioned on his economic policies, preferring massive rallies where he is largely mobbed by fans. — With Nikko Dizon, Paolo Romero

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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