CEBU CITY, March 28, 2004
By Ann Corvera - President Arroyo has sent another strong message to her rivals in the May 10 elections as she challenged them to a debate that will inform the public of their platforms of government.

Mrs. Arroyo was the guest Friday night on "Impact 2004," a weekly program hosted by STAR publisher Max Soliven for the ABS-CBN News Channel. In a departure from previous taped broadcasts, the show aired live from the Waterfront Hotel in Cebu, where the President had made a campaign stop.

"I don’t dwell on my rivals’ (criticisms). I dwell on what I should do. The only thing I can say is that I really think we should take up platforms and that we should agree to a debate," she said.

When Soliven pointed out that "not everybody has a doctorate" degree to fall back on in a debate, Mrs. Arroyo replied: "That is why not everybody can be president."

A former legislator and academic, Mrs. Arroyo earned a doctorate in economics from the University of the Philippines and was on the dean’s list at Georgetown University in Washington, where she and former US President Bill Clinton were classmates.

Mrs. Arroyo saw the presidential race as a "two-cornered fight" between her and Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) candidate Fernando Poe Jr, a popular movie actor who has no background in politics.

"The surveys are very obvious. It’s really a two-cornered fight," she said, when asked who she believes is her most formidable opponent among the four other presidential candidates.

But Mrs. Arroyo also lashed out at the opposition for resorting to "black propaganda" against her, with allegations ranging from involvement in shady transactions to violations of election laws.

She denied any knowledge of an alleged P5-million bribe offered to KNP media bureau chief Rod Reyes for him to quit his post and join the administration camp.

"Not that I am aware of," she said. "It would be natural for black propaganda to be thrown (at me at this time)."

She insisted it is not her style to focus on unfounded accusations.

"Black propaganda should not be talked about," she said. "Tinatakpan kasi ang pagkawala ng (You cover up the lack of a) platform by throwing black propaganda," the President added.

Mrs. Arroyo said that she had been doing "mostly governance work."

Reacting to allegations that government resources were being used in her campaign, she stressed she was not violating any election laws.

"I’m very, very careful. My lawyers have been very careful to follow the law," she said.

The President said her experience is what gives her the edge over the other presidential candidates.

"It’s an advantage for governance because we don’t want to keep starting from scratch... that is what I have to offer," she said. "People don’t want destructive politics. They want to hear platforms."

Mrs. Arroyo — who took over the presidency after her predecessor Joseph Estrada was overthrown by a military-backed uprising amid charges of corruption — expressed her confidence that the electorate will vote for the candidate best suited for the job.

The President said a good leader must be knowledgeable about the "technical and bureaucratic procedures" involved in government contracts.

She warned that an inexperienced leader cannot curb red tape and rampant corruption in the government.

While admitting that her husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, is a "very easy target" for political opponents bent on discrediting her administration, the President was adamant that she had never allowed any contracts or appointments to pass through him since she became president.

Mr. Arroyo has been seen as the President’s Achilles heel because of his alleged role as a Palace middleman.

Independent presidential candidate Sen. Panfilo Lacson has accused Mr. Arroyo of laundering millions of pesos in campaign contributions when his wife was still senator through a secret bank account under the alias "Jose Pidal."

Lacson’s accusations became the basis of a Senate inquiry where Mr. Arroyo’s brother, Ignacio Arroyo, surfaced to claim that he was Jose Pidal. But the probe did not prosper as the younger Arroyo kept on invoking his right to privacy when asked on the details of the bank accounts.

Mrs. Arroyo noted that the bank accounts were closed in 1998, long before she became president and before the anti-money laundering law was passed.

"So was there was any law violated? Remember I was not in power when those contributions were made. So therefore, who is really the violator of the law? The ones who libeled me," she said, adding that Lacson may have "invented" the accounts he referred to in his privileged speeches.

The President said the banks themselves where the accounts were supposedly held denied Lacson’s claims.

Mrs. Arroyo said "vindictiveness" was behind the "Jose Pidal" issue after the revival of the Kuratong Baleleng rubout case against Lacson.

Lacson is a former police official who, with 33 other policemen, was accused of summarily executing alleged members of the infamous kidnap-for-ransom gang in 1995.

"I have no personal interest in the Kuratong Baleleng case. It’s the ordinary wheels of justice that is turning, and there’s no instruction to anybody to speed it up," she said.

KNP campaign manager, Sen. Vicente "Tito" Sotto II, had a sarcastic take on Mrs. Arroyo’s appearance on Soliven’s show, saying that the opposition was grateful to her for plugging Poe.

"Instead of talking about herself, they ended up talking about FPJ," he said.

Asked by reporters about Mrs. Arroyo’s accusations that the KNP was using black propaganda to cover up its lack of a platform, Poe ran true to form when he said that the administration didn’t back up its platform with action.

"Yung plataporma nila, puro salita. Kulang na kulang sila sa gawa. Itong mga nakaraang, ilang taon na? Tatlong taon na. Ano ba ang nangyari sa ating gobyerno. Puro salita, kulang sa gawa (Their platform is long in words. But they’re short in deed. What has become of our government during the past three years? It’s been long in words, but short in deed)," he said.

Poe, who was also campaigning in Cebu, has been criticized for leaving it up to his representatives to explain his platform and for his refusal to debate with other candidates. But he defends himself by asserting that he is a man of action and not of words. — With Jose Rodel Clapano

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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