MANILA, March 23, 2004  (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva - Former President Joseph Estrada blamed yesterday his ouster through EDSA II in January 2001 for the controversies over Maynilad Water Services Inc. and the firing of his friend, veteran comedian Dolphy, from the ABS-CBN sitcom "Home Along da Airport."

Estrada reiterated his claim that the Lopez family, which owns ABS-CBN as well as the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) and controlling stakes in Maynilad, was part of a "conspiracy" involving other big businesses that plotted with then Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and "some civil society groups and some elements of the military" to unseat him.

Estrada said that as president, he had disapproved a water rate increase sought by Maynilad before his daughter, Jackie Ejercito, married Beaver Lopez, son of Meralco’s Oscar Lopez.

During his tenure, Estrada said, Maynilad tried to pressure him into allowing the company to raise water rates. Estrada said he rejected the request.

"After that, the Lopezes, through media and ABS-CBN, started to demonize me," he said.

While Estrada is now related by affinity to the Lopez clan, he said the alleged "sweetheart" deal in the government’s bailout of the debt-ridden Maynilad clearly showed how President Arroyo, as the incumbent running for a full six-year term in the May 10 elections, can use her office to "influence, pressure or threaten" private business establishments.

Estrada said he was not at all surprised when Dolphy, his friend and former colleague in the entertainment industry, was removed from his weekly sitcom aired by ABS-CBN after Dolphy joined the campaign of Estrada’s bosom buddy, Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr.

Mrs. Arroyo has denied allegations by the KNP that the government bailed out Maynilad, whose owners are closely identified with longtime ABS-CBN talent Sen. Noli de Castro, who is running for vice president under the administration Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan sa Kinabukasan (K-4) banner.

Estrada called up The STAR yesterday from his Camp Capinpin detention center in Tanay, Rizal to comment on the Maynilad bailout and Dolphy’s removal from "Home Along da Airport."

He said Mrs. Arroyo was caught in this "peculiar" situation when framers of the 1987 Constitution failed to foresee a scenario in which a vice president succeeds a duly elected president who was "unconstitutionally" ousted from office. In this scenario, the outcome is that Mrs. Arroyo has been allowed to seek election while sitting as the incumbent.

"She will do everything and that goes to show the sitting President has influence, not only over government officials, but also over private businessmen," he said. "That’s why it was prohibited in our Constitution for a sitting president to run for re-election."

"In the first place, the (incumbent) President has undue advantage," Estrada added. "He or she has under his or her command all the resources of government, including the police and the military. He or she can threaten all business, or use his or her influence to get (these businesses to do) what he or she wants them to do."

Given this situation, Mrs. Arroyo, he said, has the "undue advantage" over her four rivals in the coming elections.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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