ZAMBOANGA CITY,  April 30, 2004
By Roel Pareño  —  The long awaited merger of Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr. and independent presidential candidate Sen. Panfilo Lacson will not happen as both contenders proclaimed separately here that they would proceed with their candidacies.

Poe was the first to announce during a KNP rally at the Plaza Pershing late Wednesday that he would not back out of the race or slide down to vice president.

"Hindi po totoo ’yon. Inumpisahan natin ’to, tatapusin natin ‘to (It’s not true. We started this, we will finish this)," Poe said.

When asked to comment on Poe’s statement, Lacson, who was also on a campaign sortie at the commercial district here, told reporters: "Same here. Walang urungan (No backing out). I will go all the way straight until the May 10 elections."

Lacson said, however, that he and Poe could still unify their forces in the fight against cheating by the administration party.

In their unity talks Tuesday night, Poe and Lacson said they agreed to forge a common front against widespread cheating supposedly to be carried out by the administration on May 10.

Lacson, however, said that the impression he gathered during their Tuesday meeting is that it is still possible that Poe would be the one to slide down to vice president.

He stressed though that whoever remains as the standard- bearer would lead the opposition to victory on May 10.

"As far as gunning for the presidency we should go our separate ways ngayon (now)," Lacson said, stressing that the decision was arrived at when they met on Tuesday night.

An exasperated Sen. Vicente Sotto III, Poe’s campaign manager, said yesterday that the unification issue is already "passe" and the media should not be giving it too much attention.

"Hindi na dapat bigyan ng atensyon ’yan dahil ngayon nasa poll watching na kami (The issue should not be given too much attention because right now, our concern is already poll watching)," Sotto told The STAR.

Sotto had earlier expressed suspicion that the unification issue could be part of a spin by Malacañang propagandists to show a fractured opposition that would ultimately benefit President Arroyo’s candidacy.

Lito Anzures, a member of the KNP executive committee, agreed.

"It’s even probably a Malacañang line that everything hinges on the (opposition) unification," Anzures said.

KNP spokesman Mike Romero, for his part, told The STAR that "until May 10, there would be no end to the issue because Poe and Lacson are still talking."

"Anything can happen between now and election day," he said.

Romero pointed out that Lacson and Poe will still have a follow-up meeting to discuss the mechanics on how their parties could address electoral fraud together.

"It could lead to other unifying factors," Romero said.

Earlier, there were high hopes that both presidential aspirants would seal the merger of the two opposition camps in this southern port city, which was the expressed hope of the late mayor Ma. Clara Lobregat.

Lacson confirmed he was supposed to meet with Poe at the Zamboanga City International Airport prior to his departure to Dipolog City. But Lacson’s plane, coming from Jolo, Sulu had just touched down the airport when Poe’s plane left.

Lacson, accompanied by his senatorial candidate Rep. Carlos Padilla, is so far the first presidential bet who made rounds at the Jolo public market.

Local observers who joined Lacson’s unconventional campaign style described Jolo residents’ reception of Lacson as warm and overwhelming.

"The people there was very eager to see me and I proved to them that we are the only candidates who first set foot there at buo ang loob, walang takot (determined and without fear)," Lacson said.

Lacson, who arrived here about 9 a.m. yesterday, immediately walked around the commercial district where he was welcomed with confetti by a throng of supporters and spectators.

He later met with a group of Zamboanga business leaders who were reportedly backing his candidacy at the Garden Orchid Hotel. The businessmen, however, refused to reveal their identities for fear of harassment.

Meanwhile, Poe finally articulated his platform of government in a grand rally here in a bid to dispel the notion that his presidential campaign is fueled by sheer popularity but lacking in substance.

In a speech before a crowd of at least 15,000 people at the city plaza, Poe aired his priorities for the first 100 days if elected and other issues such as food security, job creation, eradication of graft and corruption and fiscal reforms.

He also defended his TV commercials, which hints at his plans and programs and hits the administration’s failures.

For Mindanao, he said he will work hard for lasting peace and a permanent end to the secessionist rebellion since foreign investments will not increase if the peace and order situation does not dramatically improve.

Poe also vowed to alleviate the plight of fishermen and farmers, who are responsible for providing food to the people, since despite the presence of appropriate laws and programs they have remained marginalized due to illegal diversion of funds.

"The right of the Filipino to have a decent meal is our highest priority," he said. "We need food, our farmers and fishermen need help to produce food for the citizenry."

Poe said that he has already talked to former agriculture secretary Salvador Escudero, who is running in the KNP senatorial slate, to look at the plight of farmers and fisherfolk.

He said he will ensure job security and reorient spending priorities and institute bold tax reforms as he cited the need to strengthen the government’s education program, particularly in remote areas of the country.

"We will dramatically align our budget to provide ample support for the delivery of basic services, particularly health, education, and housing to the poor," he said. — With Paolo Romero, Jess Diaz, Nikko Dizon

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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