MANILA, June 10, 2005
(STAR) By Paolo Romero -  Embattled by questions about her credibility to lead the nation, President Arroyo denied cheating in last year’s election and reiterated that she would not step down.

During the 2004 elections, she declared, "the people responded, giving me 40 percent of the votes. I was given a one-million-vote lead. That huge number of votes, that wide margin, cannot be (achieved) through cheating," Mrs. Arroyo told dzRH radio yesterday.

The President said allegations by the opposition that she cheated in the May elections were part of an orchestrated plot to unseat her.

She appealed for understanding and asked Filipinos "not to allow themselves to be used by those who want to return to power after they have been ousted or who want to seize power and run the government through undemocratic means."

Mrs. Arroyo firmly denied the allegations of fraud amid calls by the opposition led by Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. for her to resign.

Pimentel also called on Vice President Noli de Castro to quit his post, claiming he also won under "questionable circumstances."

"I suggest that there is no honorable course of action left for the President and the Vice President to take (other) than to resign now to clear the way for the holding of new elections for the presidency where the incumbent Vice President has every right to contend with others for office," Pimentel said.

De Castro, on the other hand, said the call for his resignation is "baseless." He claimed a constitutional "shortcut" is being eyed by parties who want to seize power.

"While I respect the opinion of every Filipino, including our esteemed legislators, it is my firm belief that calls for my resignation without any basis are totally unwarranted and directly contradict our hallowed constitutional and legal processes," De Castro said.

Amid persistent coup rumors, the country’s top military and police commanders again pledged their loyalty to Mrs. Arroyo and vowed to crush any plots.

Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Arturo Lomibao called on the entire police force "to remain faithful to God and country under the leadership of President Arroyo."

In a fax message, Lomibao described the attacks against the Arroyo administration as another "destabilization move."

Electoral fraud allegations against Mrs. Arroyo resurfaced after several CD copies were circulated to the media, purportedly containing a wiretapped telephone conversation in which the President urges an election official to ensure her victory in the May 10, 2004 vote.

The accusations prompted the opposition to consolidate its ranks by calling for an emergency meeting Tuesday night.

Among those who were invited by the United Opposition (UNO) was actress Susan Roces, widow of opposition presidential candidate and actor Fernando Poe Jr.

It was gathered that Roces had declined to attend the opposition meeting to discuss the fraud allegations against Mrs. Arroyo.

The accusations, first raised during the elections, surfaced anew as witnesses at an ongoing Senate hearing accused the President’s husband, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, her son Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel "Mikey" Arroyo and brother-in-law Negros Occidental Rep. Ignacio "Iggy" Arroyo of receiving jueteng payoffs.

The accusations fueled political tensions amid rumors of a pending coup and a backdrop of rising prices, new taxes and the President’s plunging popularity ratings.

Mrs. Arroyo fired back at the opposition yesterday, saying: "Instead of accepting defeat and working with the winners and putting the interest of the people ahead of theirs, there are some on the other side who choose to challenge my leadership.

"I will not allow those seeking to topple me to succeed, and I will not allow them to undermine or weaken my ability to govern," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo claimed the opposition had engineered the fresh destabilization moves against her administration.

The President also pointed out she had ordered the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the accusations of illegal jueteng payoffs.

"But there are some who have no compunction in violating the law and demolishing the security of the President just to topple the government. I will not allow this to continue and they will be punished," she said.

Pimentel, however, insisted Mrs. Arroyo had already lost her credibility to govern the nation.

He said Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation is the "most expedient and constitutional way for the President to get out of this mess (in which) she put herself and the country."

"For the sake of the nation, the President should now consider resigning. The reasons are clear: She has no credibility left in her whole body from head to toe. She has exhausted whatever moral ascendancy she had since she replaced Erap (former President Joseph Estrada)," he said.

While admitting no direct evidence linked Mrs. Arroyo to the jueteng scandals, Pimentel claimed "the web of evidence is fast closing on her."

Pimentel suggested Senate President Franklin Drilon should stand as acting President and exercise his duty as the third-highest elected official of the country in order to call for elections and fill the vacancies in the offices of President and Vice President.

"I favor the holding of new elections for the Presidency and the Vice Presidency as the most feasible thing to be done under the circumstances," Pimentel said.

"The country cannot go leaderless even for a week, much less for the next five years," he said.

Other lawmakers also joined Pimentel in calling for Mrs. Arroyo’s ouster.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada aired his support for Pimentel by saying the people are losing their trust in Mrs. Arroyo.

"The people are starting to lose their trust and confidence, which she never had anyway, so I share the same call of Senator Pimentel," he said.

Sorsogon Rep. Francis Escudero likewise backed Pimentel and said the jueteng and the audiotape scandals facing the administration, along with Mrs. Arroyo’s low popularity ratings, indicate her loss of moral authority to govern.

Gabriela party-list Rep. Liza Maza added Mrs. Arroyo’s leadership may no longer be viable.

Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who has been at odds with Pimentel in the Senate minority bloc, declined to comment on the issue. He only said he "will not hold on to the coattails of others."

T’was Expected

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said calls for the President to resign are to be expected from the opposition.

"They’re dreaming," he told reporters yesterday. "You have to expect that from the opposition."

Administration lawmakers led by Drilon also shrugged off the opposition’s demand that Mrs. Arroyo quit.

Drilon said the resignation clamor coming from Pimentel and the rest of the opposition lawmakers is predictable.

"The calls for President Arroyo and Vice President Noli (De Castro) to resign are expected from the political opposition. That opinion that the President no longer has the credibility to govern is not shared by the critical mass of people," Drilon said.

He said the timing of the opposition call comes just as the country is gripped in "a highly politically charged environment" brought about by the jueteng payola allegations and the release of the controversial recordings.

Drilon conceded some damage may have been inflicted on the President and her family but he expressed confidence that Mrs. Arroyo would overcome this.

"In these critical times, I call for sobriety. While damage may have been inflicted on the presidency, I do not believe that the same is irreparable," he said.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said it would be premature to call for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation if the reasons were based on the allegations made during the Senate hearings over the illegal lottery payoffs.

"When the opposition calls for the President’s resignation, when no evidence against her has been established, the unfortunate result is to disturb our political allies and trading partners around the world. Do we want to inflict this wound upon ourselves?" Santiago asked.

Santiago said it is commendable for the President to order a no-holds-barred investigation into the allegations of jueteng payoffs, even if it meant some members of her family would end up prosecuted.

"We cannot expect more. Unless there is evidence, not mere allegation, that she profited from their hypothetical crimes, she has no criminal liability. She cannot be punished for the crimes of others," Santiago said.

Congressmen led by Majority Leader Prospero Nograles (Davao City) twitted Pimentel over his call for Mrs. Arroyo and De Castro to resign.

"Wake up, Nene (Pimentel), you know that’s not possible. The President and Noli will not resign," Nograles said.

Nograles claimed there was no legal basis in Pimentel’s proposal that the President and Vice President both resign.

Tarlac Rep. Gilberto Teodoro, for his part, disagreed with Nograles on the constitutional basis for a snap election but expressed misgivings as to whether this was the right way for the nation to move forward.

Teodoro explained the Senate president could become the acting president and call for a snap election "within three days from the occurrence in the highest office."

But Teodoro said Pimentel’s formula for a snap election was the wrong route to get out of the present crisis.

"We might see more chaos that will plunge us deeper in crisis," Teodoro said. "Frankly, I do not know the right formula."

Mindanao local officials led by North Cotabato Gov. Manny Piñol, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Sarangani Gov. Miguel Dominguez also expressed their support for Mrs. Arroyo.

"If there is a case, then they should file it. But I do not think it should stop the President from performing her job," Piñol said.

For her part, South Cotabato Gov. Daisy Fuentes said she was saddened by the turn of events.

"I really wanted to support her but the President should also address the issues," she said.

Camiguin Gov. Pedro Romualdo said local governments in Metro Manila should help the President instead of blaming her for their woes. - With Aurea Calica, Christina Mendez, Marvin Sy, Jess Diaz, Pia Lee-Brago, Eva Visperas, Edith Regalado, AP, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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