MANILA, April 20, 2004
By Jess Diaz and Nikko Dizon - Unless Fernando Poe Jr. and Sen. Panfilo Lacson find time to see each other, there won’t be any united opposition.

"Scheduling problems" derailed their much-publicized meeting yesterday — the latest attempt to forge a united front against President Arroyo ahead of next month’s presidential election.

"The conflict in the schedules of the two candidates is the reason for the cancellation of today’s unification talks. Senator Lacson has already canceled his afternoon sortie in Malabon and Navotas to give way to the talks," Lito Banayo, Lacson’s spokesman and political strategist, told reporters. Lacson’s camp announced the cancellation.

Asked to comment on the postponement, Poe said he was still interested in the talks with Lacson. "Hopefully, the sooner the better for us to have the talks. We need to unite because it’s difficult to be divided," he told reporters during a campaign sortie in Valenzuela City.

Banayo said Poe informed Lacson by phone Sunday night that he would be available the next morning until noon. Lacson, however, was free only in the afternoon.

Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, who is on the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino’s executive committee, said Lacson’s camp suggested two meeting times.

After Poe had selected a particular time, they were later told by Lacson’s camp that something came up and were asked to suggest another meeting time. But by then Poe’s schedule was already full, Binay said.

"Much as we want, we have important commitments," said Binay, who was in charge of arranging Poe’s meeting schedule.

Asked if there is still time to unify the opposition, he said: "It’s not too late."

Lacson will be in Mindanao for the whole of next week. Banayo suggested that Poe meet Lacson there.

The actor-turned-politician proceeded with his campaign swing in northern Metro Manila in the afternoon and was expected to attend the birthday celebration of longtime friend, deposed President Joseph Estrada, in Tanay, Rizal.

Lacson, who served as chief of the Philippine National Police during the Estrada administration, said he would not pay Estrada a visit.

Estrada, for his part, denied having anything to do with the Lacson-Poe unification talks.

"Wala akong kinalaman d’yan," Estrada told The STAR by telephone from his Tanay resthouse before the end of his birthday furlough granted by the Sandiganbayan.

However, he said the unification is the best birthday gift either Lacson or Poe could give to him.

One opposition leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, suspected the resolve of Poe and Lacson not to withdraw from the presidential race may be the reason for the meeting’s cancellation.

Hours before Banayo announced that the meeting was off, Poe’s running mate, Sen. Loren Legarda, told reporters that the opposition front-runner would not back out or dump her. Lacson does not have a running mate.

Estrada, who is solidly behind Poe, is now reportedly convincing Lacson to slide down as Poe’s vice presidential candidate, Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay said, citing "impeccable sources."

Pichay also said Estrada has sunk P30 million to bankroll Poe’s campaign. "After solving the immediate funding problems, Erap is now busy trying to get Lacson to give way to Poe and cobble together a united front against President Arroyo. He told the two bets that a united front is the only way to beat GMA," he said.

Contacted by The STAR, Estrada said Pichay was lying as usual. "Ninety-percent of what he says are all lies," he said.

Estrada added that if he had such amount, he would give it straight to Poe to help him in his campaign.

Poe senatorial candidate, re-electionist Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., said Poe’s campaign rally speeches lately show that he is determined to seek the presidency.

"I have noticed that FPJ is more aggressive in his pronouncements than before. Now he is throwing harsher accusations and bolder challenges at GMA. Unlike before when he would say it obliquely," Pimentel said.

The opposition’s best option is for Lacson to withdraw, Pimentel said, adding that Lacson will not forfeit his Senate seat.

Poe can beat Mrs. Arroyo even if Lacson does not withdraw but it would be easier for the action star to win if Lacson pulls out, Pimentel said.

House Minority Leader Carlos Padilla, Lacson’s lone senatorial candidate, has urged the influential Iglesia ni Cristo — which has been known to vote as a bloc — to broker talks between Poe and Lacson.

Poe has been courting the support of the INC, which has about four million members, for the May elections. The INC has reportedly warned Poe and Lacson it would back Mrs. Arroyo if they fail to unite under one standard-bearer.

"We know the INC offers not just a solid vote, but also solid support. Whoever the INC supports will get a very big edge," Padilla told a radio interview.

In January, the two sides tried to forge a merger and present a single opposition presidential candidate against Mrs. Arroyo to avoid splitting the anti-Arroyo vote.

But the talks failed after Lacson and Poe refused to back down from their presidential bids although both agreed to submit themselves to a selection process.

Hopes for opposition unity were further dashed as opposition parties were split on whether to field Lacson or Poe as the standard-bearer.

Voter opinion polls show that Mrs. Arroyo and Poe are tied in the run-up to the election.

Arroyo allies predict she will win by a slim margin of eight to ten percent of the vote. Poe senatorial candidate Ernesto Maceda predicts the political neophyte will win by an estimated eight percent edge.

Mrs. Arroyo has been hoping the opposition would field one candidate "so that there would be a better comparison of the administration and the opposition," her spokesman Ignacio Bunye said. — With Paolo Romero, Marichu Villanueva, Delon Porcalla, Jose Rodel Clapano, Ding Cervantes

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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