By Jose Rodel Clapano  — Independent presidential candidate Sen. Panfilo Lacson asked yesterday Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr. to slide down and be his running mate under a unified opposition.

Lacson pointed out that the actor’s popularity alone will not be sufficient to carry him through the problems of managing the government.

However, former President Joseph Estrada, who has become a symbol for the opposition, declared yesterday a tailender in the surveys should slide down and give way to the frontrunner.

"Pwede ba namang mag-give way ang No. 1 sa No. 4 (in the surveys)," Estrada told reporters at his detention cell at Camp Capinpin, Tanay, Rizal, without mentioning Lacson’s name.

Estrada also expressed confidence that the unification talks between Lacson and Poe would in the end push through.

"They (Lacson and Poe) are not only mature but also intelligent. And the opposition has only one objective, and that is to remove President Arroyo," Estrada said.

Even if the unification talks fail, Estrada said Poe can still win on his own.

President Arroyo, for her part, renewed her challenge for Lacson and Poe to join ranks.

She said a merger of the opposition would be the best campaign strategy to beat her in the May 10 presidential elections.

Mrs. Arroyo said whoever emerges the lone opposition candidate should engage in a decent and civilized campaign.

"All I can say is I look forward that this contest (between Lacson and Poe) would result to a clearer comparison between (the) two camps, the civilized and decent campaign by the administration based on platform and the opposition which has engaged in negativism, mudslinging, harangues and threats," Mrs. Arroyo said.

In a teleconference, Lacson said that he is still hopeful both of he and Poe will unify and close the ranks of the opposition as against President Arroyo and the administration.

"Yes, the hope for unification of the opposition is still there and I am hoping that FPJ (Poe’s initials) realizes that it takes more than popularity to handle government affairs," he said.

Lacson reiterated he will not slide down to become vice presidential candidate as he made the call to Poe to become his running mate for a united opposition.

"Mas mainam na siya (Poe) ang mag-slide down so we can beat everybody," Lacson later told ABS-CBN’s "TV Patrol" news program last night.

He expressed hopes that the aborted unification talks with Poe will finally push through on Monday or Tuesday next week.

Lacson said a unification of their ranks will form a common front against cheating.

"We can pool together our resources to field watchers to thwart cheating. Bonus na lang if mag slide-down siya (Poe) or mag-withdraw siya," Lacson said.

Poe and Lacson failed to meet Monday, leaving prospects of a unified opposition ticket more uncertain while bolstering hopes of a victory for Mrs. Arroyo.

Their sixth and latest attempt to forge a unified ticket apparently failed due to what both sides said were "scheduling problems." Poe had said he is still interested in talks with Lacson.

"I will be free on Monday next week," Lacson said. "If FPJ is free on Monday or Tuesday by next week, we can push through with our meeting."

Lacson also denied receiving funds from businessman Lucio Tan to maintain his position and continue his quest for the presidency.

He also said the statement from Estrada pointing to him as the "stumbling block" in the unification of the opposition was "senseless and illogical."

"I cannot really understand his (Estrada’s) statement," Lacson said.

"That is his opinion. But I cannot get the sense of that statement. I cannot see the sense in that statement of Mr. Estrada that I am the stumbling block in the unification. What does that mean?" Lacson asked.

Lacson’s lone senatorial candidate, Nueva Vizcaya Rep. Carlos Padilla said his standard-bearer will not quit the presidential race or slide down to the vice presidency.

"We understand that is the former president’s wish because he has always been supportive of his bosom buddy FPJ. But Ping Lacson is determined to pursue his candidacy until May 10 and continue his crusade against graft and corruption and for good governance beyond the elections," Padilla said.

Padilla said Poe should instead give way and support Lacson as presidential contender.

The Clock Is Ticking

Poe, for his part, declared yesterday he is getting impatient over the slow pace of unification talks with Lacson.

"I’m getting impatient," Poe said in Filipino. "It’s not only I who’s waiting but our supporters are also waiting when we are going to talk."

He said efforts to unify the opposition can scarcely wait as the May 10 elections are barely three weeks away.

Asked how long can he wait for Lacson, Poe said there is no time frame. "We are trying to arrange everything ... so that our schedules would coincide," he said.

Poe said it may be "too late" for any unification talks in May.

Rumors of a secret meeting flew thick yesterday after Lacson canceled his campaign sortie and remained in Manila with Poe, on the other hand, canceling his campaign in General Santos City.

Lacson said his doctor advised him to forgo his trip after being diagnosed with cough and cold.

KNP officials claimed Poe was shooting a new campaign commercial. A possibility, however, remained that both could have met secretly due to gaps in their schedules in the afternoon and in the evening.

Makati City Mayor Jejomar Binay, a member of the KNP executive committee and privy to the unification efforts, said everything is being done for the talks to push through.

He said the KNP remains optimistic and hopeful that both camps could form a united front against the administration even with time not on their side.

Binay also warned Lacson that Poe cannot wait too long for the talks to push through.

Poe’s spokesman, Sorsogon Rep. Francis Escudero, said both presidential aspirants may have communicated with each other by text message through their cell phones.

"They’ve exchanged numbers so I’m sure they’ve communicated somehow," Escudero said.

Setting Back The Clock

Estrada has repeatedly shown his preference for Poe, his bosom buddy, over Lacson, his erstwhile national police chief.

He earlier said that other presidential aspirants should give way and support Poe for the sake of unity.

Estrada pointed out the unification efforts of Poe and Lacson will not bear fruit unless one of them gives way.

He said several presidential candidates as against a lone candidate from the administration is not a good sign for the opposition in terms of votes.

Estrada is now reportedly convincing Lacson to slide down to be Poe’s vice presidential candidate, according to administration lawmaker Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay.

Pichay claimed yesterday Estrada and the Marcos family are pouring money into Poe’s campaign kitty to sustain the actor’s floundering campaign.

Pichay warned that a Poe presidency "could set the Philippines back by 20 years in the eyes of foreign investors and stoke the embers of a leftist and Muslim revolution into a raging inferno."

Pichay said a victory for Poe or Lacson would wipe out all the democratic gains from EDSA I and II.

He said a clear indication of Poe’s adherence to destructive politics was his failure to elaborate on his platform of governance.— With Delon Porcalla, Marichu Villa-nueva, Jess Diaz

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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