By Sheila Crisostomo — Presidential aspirant Raul Roco called on President Arroyo here yesterday to back out from the May presidential race, saying it would enable the country’s ailing economy to recover.

Roco blamed Mrs. Arroyo for the country’s struggling economic performance.

Investors were scared off when Mrs. Arroyo backtracked on her Rizal Day 2002 decision to withdraw from the presidential contest.

"Her December promise to Jose Rizal should be kept, that’s what she promised to do. The investors see that she can’t be trusted. If you cannot rely on the government, you cannot rely on the leadership," he said during a campaign sortie here.

In a stunning announcement, Mrs. Arroyo said in Baguio City on Dec. 30, 2002 that she was no longer standing for election so she could concentrate on revitalizing the sluggish economy without being distracted by politics.

It was believed that her withdrawal was a result of her sagging popularity ratings.

She reversed her decision in October last year when her opinion poll ratings recovered, however, claiming a clamor for her to run and seek a full six-year term.

Opinion polls show that Mrs. Arroyo is now in a statistical tie with opposition front-runner Fernando Poe Jr., a close friend of Mrs. Arroyo’s predecessor, Joseph Estrada.

Poe is expected to win because of his movie star popularity despite his lack of experience in holding public office.

Mrs. Arroyo, then vice president, replaced scandal-tainted Estrada in January 2001 following allegations of massive corruption 31 months into his presidency.

The former movie actor is now detained while on trial for plunder, a charge he denies.

Roco said the economy picked up following Mrs. Arroyo’s announcement not to seek a fresh term. But it went downhill when Mrs. Arroyo reversed her decision, Roco claimed.

Roco joined the political opposition’s call for Mrs. Arroyo to either concentrate on her job or take a leave from office and concentrate on the campaign.

"Let her be president, let her run the economy, let her try to unite the people, let her give us a legacy of an honest credible elections. Then maybe, we will remember her well," he added.

He also shared the opposition’s sentiment that Mrs. Arroyo has been using government resources and funds for her campaign.

"They are using money to buy votes. It’s a disregard for sovereignty. They have the Philippine Health Insurance, the Government Service Insurance System, the road user’s tax, and it’s only the administration, on record, buying votes so directly," he said.

A watchdog group accusing Mrs. Arroyo of using public funds for her campaign has asked the Commission on Elections to disqualify her.

The complaint stemmed from the Philhealth medical insurance cards that Mrs. Arroyo has been distributing during campaign stops.

Mrs. Arroyo is facing at least six other disqualification petitions over various complaints. She denies using public funds for her campaign.

Though it was unlikely that the petitions would be over before election day, they could affect Mrs. Arroyo’s credibility, Roco said.

"It can’t be done before the election because there are procedures that must be followed. But it is enough that the people see (what Malacañang) is doing. We should make the people keep the government honest."

Roco and the opposition claim Mrs. Arroyo has an undue advantage in the campaign because she is an incumbent.

Mrs. Arroyo will be the Philippines’ first sitting president since the 1986 ouster of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos to run in a presidential election.

The 1987 Constitution, written after the Marcos dictatorship, provides a single six-year term for the president with no reelection.

Legal experts say Mrs. Arroyo is eligible to run in next year’s presidential contest, however, because she was elected vice president in the 1998 polls.

Mrs. Arroyo will continue Estrada’s term until the end of June.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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