MANILA, March 19, 2004  (STAR) President Arroyo appealed to presidential aspirants yesterday to focus on platforms instead of mudslinging in the May 10 election after two petitions sought to disqualify her on flimsy grounds.

A group of lawyers and two opposition candidates running for the Senate filed this week two separate petitions with Commission on Elections (Comelec) and the Supreme Court, respectively, challenging Mrs. Arroyo’s candidacy.

They claimed the President overstepped television air time for her political advertisements and that she cannot campaign while holding office.

The President has dismissed the move as harassment and said it has no legal ground.

She challenged the political opposition to get its act together instead of engaging in "political harassment" and "demolition jobs" in the wake of the second disqualification case lodged before the High Court the other day by two female senatorial candidates running under the ticket of her chief rival, Fernando Poe Jr., standard-bearer of the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP).

"It is sad to note that the opposition has been heavily inclined towards political harassment, demolition jobs and internal strife instead of focusing on its platform and the issues that go with it," the President said in an official statement released yesterday at Malacañang.

"This is a travesty of democracy," she said. "The Filipino people are burdened and weary of electioneering and mudslinging every election time." Without dwelling on specifics, the President obliquely took a hit at Poe’s vehement refusal to participate in the presidential debate being organized by the Comelec, or any debate for that matter.

"What they (voters) want to know is how a presidential candidate would lead them and improve their lives once elected," the President said.

Sj virtually encouraged the divided opposition to unite even as she has kept mum on attempts by opposition camps to forge a common ticket between Poe and another opposition bet, Sen. Panfilo Lacson.

"The opposition must get their act together and get in shape," Mrs. Arroyo said.

However, the President took strong exception to repeated accusations by the opposition that she has been using government resources to boost her candidacy in the May 10 election.

"We are trying to wage a principled campaign that brings the people in close contact with urgent issues such as housing, health and clean water," she pointed out.

"We have kept off any form of harassment, ploys or mudslinging because we want the public to have a clear mind of the road ahead and the choices people have to make," the President said.

In the petition filed by KNP senatorial contenders Ma. Elisa "Boots" Anson-Roa and Amina Rasul-Bernardo against Mrs. Arroyo, they cited conflict of interest in a sitting president seeking a full six-year term in the May 10 elections.

The petitioners, through their lawyers, cited the 1987 Constitution which prohibits the President from continuing to perform the functions of her office after she filed her certificate of candidacy last Jan. 5.

Compelling her to step down or go on leave would prevent Mrs. Arroyo from using government resources in her campaign, the petitioners said.

They said the Supreme Court should declare Mrs. Arroyo resigned and prohibited from exercising the powers and prerogatives of the presidency. They also said Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. should be ordered to take his oath as president or acting president. Guingona, a former administration ally, recently became Poe’s adviser.

The petitioners called the case a landmark one since this is the first time since the 1986 snap elections that the country has a sitting chief executive who is running in a presidential race. Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye described the petition a "harassment suit" against the President, insisting there is no legal basis for the complaint.

"That vacation is out of the question. There is no basis for that. There is no provision of the law that requires the President to go on vacation," Bunye said in an interview with government-owned Radyo ng Bayan yesterday.

He insisted Mrs. Arroyo was placed in a "unique, extraordinary situation" — not foreseen by the framers of the Constitution — having succeeded former President Joseph Estrada to complete his six-year term in office following his ouster in 2001.

Bunye said such "loophole" in the Constitution is being used by the opposition, but cited the Electoral Reform Law

to boost their claim that Mrs. Arroyo can still hold office while being a candidate in the presidential race.

"If we review the Electoral Reform Law, we can see that there are certain incumbents, for example, like the senators who can run for another position without giving up their post," Bunye said.

He cited in particular Poe’s running mate Loren Legarda as well as opposition presidential contender Lacson, both of whom still serve the country as senators.

"They do not have to resign or go on leave. That is our present law," Bunye argued. "If we look at the intention in this law, we can see they are willing to give these concessions to senators. Perhaps, the same concession should be extended to an incumbent president."

For Mrs. Arroyo’s official campaign manager for K-4 (Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan sa Kinabukasan), the disqualification suit was initiated by the KNP to draw the public’s attention away from the breakdown of unification talks between Poe and Lacson.

"Their (KNP) campaign seems to be in disarray," Gabriel Claudio said. "The prospects for the unification of the two leading opposition camps have practically broken down, and in very bad shape."

Claudio said they expect more "harassment" coming from the opposition in the run-up to the May election. — Marichu Villanueva, Delon Porcalla

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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