MANILA,  May 18, 2004 (STAR) By Sheila Crisostomo  -  Presidential candidate Raul Roco conceded to President Arroyo yesterday even as he said his Aksyon Demokratiko party will continue to gather evidence of widespread electoral fraud.

Roco said he called up Mrs. Arroyo at 3:52 p.m. yesterday to congratulate her on winning the presidential race.

"I congratulated President Arroyo for the mandate she has received from the people as indicated by published results. In so doing, I commit to continue working for a new moral regime in our country," Roco said in a hastily called press conference.

"For now, a sober effort to get the country going should be the agenda of every Filipino," he said, but described Mrs. Arroyo’s presumed mandate as "weakened" by opposition allegations of fraud.

Malacañang officials welcomed Roco’s announcement, saying that his example should be emulated by Mrs. Arroyo’s three other rivals for the presidency.

The camp of Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr., however, said Roco’s concession "means nothing" and voiced suspicion that he might have actually been working with the administration during his campaign.

Poe’s spokesman, Sorsogon Rep. Francis Escudero, said as far as they were concerned, the only significant thing in Roco’s statement was that he had accepted his defeat.

"It’s not for him to decide (that Mrs. Arroyo) has won, but the people. We will wait for the official certificates of canvass," Escudero said. "Except for the significant part that he is conceding, his statement means nothing."

Escudero pointed out that from "day one," there have been persistent rumors that Roco was "working" with the administration, especially towards the end of the campaign.

"After all, he came from the administration," Escudero said, referring to Roco’s stint as Mrs. Arroyo’s education secretary.

KNP executive committee chairman Sen. Edgardo Angara said Roco was "conceding to the commission of fraud" since he admitted there were persistent reports of massive cheating by the administration.

Poe’s personal campaign manager, Sen. Vicente Sotto III, said Roco was contradicting himself when he conceded to Mrs. Arroyo.

"How can he concede to somebody whom he believes has committed massive fraud?" Sotto said.

Roco, who first sought the presidency in 1998, said he has yet to accomplish two items of "unfinished business" — that of establishing a moral regime, and making the rule of law prevail in the country.

"That is the responsibility of both the state and the private sector. It is time to get into the mainstream of development in this shrinking global village where knowledge, talent and creativity can still make a difference for the Filipino people," he said.

Based on the quick count conducted by the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), Mrs. Arroyo is trouncing Poe, and both of them have left Roco and presidential candidates Sen. Panfilo Lacson and Eduardo Villanueva far behind.

Roco is bringing up the rear in the unofficial partial count, a far cry from his strong third place showing in 1998. His two-week medical leave less than a month before the elections was seen to have severely affected his chances.

Mrs. Arroyo’s lead in the quick count, however, is marred by the opposition’s mounting accusations of vote-buying, dagdag-bawas (vote-padding and shaving) and other forms of electoral fraud.

Roco warned that because of the widespread vote-buying, Mrs. Arroyo’s presidential mandate has been weakened.

"Nasira na ang value, wala nang fair play and dignity (The value of her mandate has been ruined, there’s no more fair play and dignity). There’s a poetic justice here, those who bought votes will inherit the trade. That will be their punishment," he said.

Roco added "the economic effects of such cynical misuse of public or private funds will be the burden of the incoming president."

Mrs. Arroyo is being accused by her rivals of using the road user’s tax and the funds of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. and Government Service Insurance System, among others, to boost her presidential bid.

Roco also said that his Aksyon Demokratiko party will continue to gather evidence of massive cheating in the elections.

"Electoral fraud will be demonstrated and supported with adequate evidence in due course. The Aksyon Demokratiko will stand by its commitment to all other parties to document these acts of fraud. The rule of law must be made to prevail," he added.

Roco said he intends to continue his law practice following his defeat in the presidential election.

"I’ll go into law practice. Tomorrow there is a corporate planning of the (Roco Kapunan Migallos Perez Luna) law office. I intend to participate," he said.

When asked if he is willing to work with Mrs. Arroyo should she invite him to join her next administration, Roco gave an open-ended response.

"By law, I cannot be invited nor can I accept (any invitation for one year) ... who knows what things can happen. The Lord’s Prayer talks only of my daily bread, not my bread next week," he said.

Michael Defensor, Mrs. Arroyo’s official campaign spokesman, welcomed the news of Roco’s concession to Mrs. Arroyo.

"We thank him with all our hearts and we hope he could still be part of our quest for unity, reforms and changes," he said, adding that "we have always held him in high regard."

Defensor, a neighbor of Roco at the posh La Vista subidivision in Quezon City, reiterated Mrs. Arroyo’s well wishes on Roco’s plan to return to the private practice of law.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye, in a separate statement, said Mrs. Arroyo hailed Roco’s move as worthy of emulation by the three other presidential candidates.

"The President appreciates the most gentlemanly gesture of Roco and wishes that all similarly situated candidates, whether for president or for other positions, would emulate him," Bunye said.

He also pointed out that "absent any documented irregularities or fraud, the results of the democratic process should be respected. The sooner we can leave the highly partisan atmosphere of the elections behind, the sooner we can move on with our task of nation-building."

Mrs. Arroyo has conceded that violence that left over 140 people dead during the three-month electoral campaign, as well as the apparent inability of many Filipinos to find their names on the voter rosters had marred the elections.

However, she described these cases as "isolated" and would not blemish the victor.

Mrs. Arroyo said yesterday she was "concerned over reports of localized cheating and isolated cases of violence that tend to undermine the image of Philippine democracy."

She urged election officials to "thoroughly investigate all specific, substantiated cases of electoral fraud regardless of partisan involvement."

Meanwhile, KNP senatorial candidate Jamby Madrigal said there should be a unity government no matter who is proclaimed the next president.

"I want a unity government whoever wins. We should set politics aside. Let us not fight anymore and whatever we will do should be for the good of the country," she said.

Madrigal is one of three women, the others being administration candidates Pia Cayetano and Miriam Defensor Santiago, who made it to the top 12 in the senatorial race. — with Marichu Villanueva, Paolo Romero, Nikko Dizon

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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