POTOTAN, ILOILO, April 14, 2004
By Sheila Crisostomo - Presidential aspirant Raul Roco left for the United States last night to seek treatment for a back ailment, but announced that he had no intention of withdrawing from the race.

Roco was accompanied by his wife, Sonia Malasarte. They left at 11:25 p.m. on a Continental Airlines flight for Houston, Texas.

With barely four weeks left before the May 10 elections, the 62-year-old former senator and education secretary said that his health condition would not be a deterrent to his quest for the presidency.

"My presidential campaign will continue to be waged by the Alyansa ng Pag-asa and by all those who want fundamental change in the character and integrity of the national leadership of the Republic of the Philippines," Roco said in a statement.

"For the sake of every Filipino, who needs to be given a choice between corrupt and incompetent leadership on one hand, and honest and decent government on the other... I will fight on and I will need your support," Roco told a press conference yesterday.

Roco, whose voice broke as he read a prepared statement, claimed that the grueling campaign took its toll on his health. In the US, he will seek treatment for "chronic pain" in the lower back, which he said was caused by "the rigors of the campaign."

He said he was told by his doctors the condition was not life-threatening but could "debilitate" him if left unattended. He said he will try to return before election day.

According to Roco, he started feeling the pain in his lower back last March 25 in the middle of a campaign sortie in the Mindanao and the Visayas.

"It started showing itself in the 45th day (of the campaign). Those among us who were in Ipil (Zamboanga Sibugay), that one was difficult. Then it became more difficult in Kabankalan (Negros Occidental). Remember we traveled 400 kilometers," he said.

Roco was referring to a campaign sortie from Dipolog City in Zamboanga del Norte to Ipil in Zamboanga Sibugay where the party traveled through rough roads for four hours. The group also proceeded to Naga, also in Zamboanga Sibugay and embarked on a long land travel to Pagadian City in Zamboanga del Sur.

The back-breaking trip was repeated in some parts of Negros Oriental and Negros Occidental.

Roco could not say what kind of treatment he will undergo and if he could return in time for the May 10 polls. He said it depends on the results of the laboratory tests that will further be performed on him in the US.

He refused to divulge though the identity of his doctors or say which hospital he will be confined at. "My doctors appealed for privacy and confidentiality of their profession," Roco explained.

The trip will sideline Roco for the crucial four weeks of the campaigning ahead of the May 10 polls but he refused to make an assumption on how this could affect his chances of winning.

"It might make us win. It might make us lose. But that is what campaigns are all about. I cannot say. It is up to the Filipino people to make a judgment. All acts, all incidents can affect results. I did not know how the Filipino people (will see this)," he said.

At Malacańang, President Arroyo sought to personally convey her "get well soon" wishes to Roco. Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye read the President’s statement in a hastily organized press conference yesterday.

"The President is concerned about the health of (former) senator Roco. She wishes him well," Bunye said.

Bunye conceded to the renewed possibility of a unity ticket, which the administration’s K-4 ticket has tried to forge with the Roco camp. However, he refused to be buttonholed into categorically stating that the President remains open to revive the proposed unity ticket with Roco.

"We have always considered Senator Roco a worthy opponent but that’s as far as we’d go. Right now, as we said, we’re concerned about his health," Bunye told Palace reporters.

Bunye also declined to comment on whether Roco’s sudden medical emergency was a graceful exit or withdrawal from the presidential race.

He vehemently denied that the Palace and Roco’s camp have been secretly negotiating for the possible withdrawal of the latter from the presidential race. He said he had no inkling whatsoever about Roco’s US trip during a radio interview last Monday over government-run Radyo ng Bayan when he said that a number of Roco’s political wards have shifted support to Mrs. Arroyo.

"That’s pure coincidence and actually, we’re reporting an incident that took place one week before the Holy Week," Bunye explained.

For his part, Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr. yesterday wished Roco well and expressed hope that he would recover soon from his ailment.

"I hope he’s going to be all right. I hope it’s just minor," Poe said.

KNP spokesman and former congressman Mike Romero said in a telephone interview that Roco’s absence would certainly "slacken the pace" of his campaign but declined to comment how it will affect the chances of Poe in the May polls.

Meanwhile, Roco’s partymates at Alyansa ng Pag-asa remain undaunted by these latest developments.

Boji Cabochan, chairman of the joint secretariat of Alyansa, said that Roco’s condition would only inspire them more to continue the fight.

"So many speculations may arise from this but (we) have to have faith. We have to move on," he added.

Alyansa senatorial candidate Frank Chavez said that "it’s all systems go" for the party despite Roco’s absence. "He may be physically not with us but the campaign will continue, the sorties will go on, the logistical support will be there. We will comply with the schedules of our sorties while we wait for Mr. Roco to recuperate and to receive the required medical assistance," Chavez stressed.

Roco is counting on the votes of the youth, women and the middle class. He had topped voter surveys before the official campaigning began in February. But observers believe the more robust campaign machinery of Mrs. Arroyo and Poe has given the two main candidates the edge. — With Marichu Villanueva, Nikko Dizon, Paolo Romero, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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