[PHOTO AT LEFT - PUBLIC APOLOGY: President Arroyo addresses the nation last night]

MANILA, June 28, 2005 (STAR) By Paolo Romero and Aurea Calica - After almost three weeks of mounting pressure to break her silence, President Arroyo admitted last night that it was she who was heard on wiretapped phone conversations and asked the nation for forgiveness for the phone calls.

Mrs. Arroyo, however, denied opposition allegations that she attempted to rig last year’s presidential election. She also rejected calls for her to step down.

"I recognize that making any such call was a lapse in judgment. I am sorry. I also regret taking so long to speak before you on this matter," a somber-looking Mrs. Arroyo told the nation in a four-minute televised address aired live from Malacañang.

"I also take full responsibility for my actions and to you and to all those good citizens who may have had their faith shaken by these events. I want to assure you that I have redoubled my efforts to serve the nation and earn your trust," the Chief Executive said.

Mrs. Arroyo did not categorically say in her address that she spoke with Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, whose appointment to the Comelec last year was contested by the political opposition over allegations that he was involved in vote-rigging in the 1995 senatorial elections.

The President said when she made the phone calls, the "outcome had been predicted by every major public opinion poll" and the elections adjudged free and fair by international observers.

"My intent was not to influence the outcome of the election, and it did not," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo conceded that the "issue of the tape recordings has spun out of control" and she broke her silence because Filipinos "deserve an explanation from me, because you are the people I was elected to serve."

She hoped that her admission would enable her to "close this chapter and move on with the business of governing," saying the controversy could threaten the progress of her administration’s economic recovery efforts.

"Nothing should stand in the way of this work, or the next phase of my reform agenda, which includes new investments in education and social services with our new revenues, and an expansion of our successful anti-corruption and lifestyle checks," Mrs. Arroyo continued.

"I ask each and every one of you to join hands with me in a show of unity, to help forge one Philippines, where everyone is equal under the law, and where everyone has the opportunity to use their God-given talents to make a better life."

She pledged to "remain your humble servant" and "fulfill my constitutional oath of office to serve the people to the best of my ability."

Earlier in the day, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye announced that Mrs. Arroyo would address the nation on an issue of "vital concern," setting off speculation that she would break her silence on politically explosive allegations that she rigged last year’s election.

The allegations against Mrs. Arroyo center on audio recordings in which a woman who sounds like Mrs. Arroyo is heard discussing with a Commission on Elections official ways to secure a million-vote margin in the May 2004 ballot. The official was believed to be Virgilio Garcillano. He denies speaking with Mrs. Arroyo during the election period.

Bunye earlier said the recordings were altered and even presented to the press two compact discs, claiming one of them was the original and the other was an edited version.

He added the recordings could be part of an opposition-backed plot to oust her by inciting mass public protests. Congress began investigating the recordings last week.

Mrs. Arroyo until yesterday had refused to state whether the voice on the tape is hers and said she would deal with the scandal when political bickering has died down.

Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo reached the decision to break her silence over the weekend after consulting lawyers headed by retired Supreme Court justice Jose Vitug.

"Every lawyer knows the President’s conversations weren’t illegal. There is no crime here. This proves there is nothing more than a lapse in judgment," he said. "The only value in pursuing this at this point is political embarrassment."

Bunye expects Arroyo critics to "continue to stroke the controversy for their own personal gain. But for most reasonable people, this issue is now behind us."

‘Time to move on’

Former President Corazon Aquino said she was "glad" Mrs. Arroyo finally broke her silence. "Her admission of judgmental lapses leading to improper conduct on her part is a truly welcome development," she said in a statement.

Aquino said Mrs. Arroyo "has made a strong beginning and I hope she will continue in the direction of better and more responsive governance. Let us pray for her and for all of us Filipinos."

Vice President Noli de Castro and other Arroyo allies praised Mrs. Arroyo and urged Filipinos to put the episode behind them.

De Castro commended Mrs. Arroyo’s admission as a "courageous act." "It’s not easy to admit lapses in judgment and at the same time ask the nation for forgiveness."

De Castro declined to comment when asked if Mrs. Arroyo committed an impeachable offense, merely saying any move should go through a legal process.

Senate President Franklin Drilon said Mrs. Arroyo "showed a lot of courage and humility when she finally told the truth" and he hopes "this would put an end to this political chapter in her life."

"Now that she has spoken, I urge the President to back her words with concrete actions in pursuing the reforms we seek to implement," Drilon said. "Concrete actions must not be undertaken if government must win back the confidence of the people."

Authorities must "look into the circumstances behind the wiretapping itself. The unlawful wiretapping of no less than the President is a serious breach of national security, which should not go unpunished," Drilon added.

Speaker Jose de Venecia, in a statement from Ukraine where he is attending an international political conference, said Mrs. Arroyo "regained the moral high ground" and he hoped that "our officials and our people will now move forward to attend to the many problems still confronting the nation."

The US Embassy said Washington will continue supporting Mrs. Arroyo. "Washington is behind President Arroyo and the American government maintains its support to the Arroyo administration," said embassy spokesman Ronald Post.

Guillermo Luz, executive director of the influential Makati Business Club, took a wait-and-see attitude, much as stock market investors have done.

"I think now we have to see what the legal experts say what next steps should take place," Luz told ABS-CBN television.

Pro-Arroyo lawmakers rallied behind the President. "Let us heed President Arroyo’s call for us to now move forward after she has addressed the tape issue," Tarlac Rep. Jesli Lapus said.

"The President has risen ten feet tall by uttering the truth and apologizing for a lapse in judgment on her part due to election-related pressures," said Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay.

Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles urged Filipinos "not to be swayed by calls for her resignation or impeachment," adding that foreign election observers attested last year’s polls to be clean.

Mrs. Arroyo won a narrow victory in the polls over her closest rival, opposition frontrunner Fernando Poe Jr.

Poe accused Mrs. Arroyo of robbing him of victory. His electoral protest was junked by the Supreme Court shortly after he died of a stroke in December.

The allegations against Mrs. Arroyo have set off widespread calls, including among top businessmen and politicians allied to the president, for her to directly address the accusations. Opposition and left-wing groups have demanded her resignation.

The scandal erupted early this month as Mrs. Arroyo was grappling with daunting problems, including rising oil prices, a huge budget deficit and security issues that have forced her to take unpopular steps like new taxes. Her popularity rating has plunged to a record low for any Philippine president.

The cheating allegations were compounded by accusations that her son, Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel Arroyo, and brother-in-law, Negros Occidental Rep. Ignacio Arroyo, pocketed huge illegal gambling payoffs. The two have strongly denied the allegations.

Opposition groups have staged almost daily demonstrations against Mrs. Arroyo, but they haven’t matched the huge "people power" protests that led to the downfalls of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Mrs. Arroyo’s predecessor, former President Joseph Estrada, in 2001. — With reports from Marvin Sy, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Jaime Laude, Pia Lee-Brago, AFP, AP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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