[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo was special guest at PEOPLE Asia magazine’s second ‘PEOPLE of the Year’ awards night at the Rizal Ballroom of the Makati Shangri-La, Manila. With her are PEOPLE Asia and Philippine STAR chairman and publisher Max Soliven and PEOPLE Asia president/CEO Jose Manuel Romualdez. - Photo By MIKE AMOROSO]

MANILA, January 11, 2006 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - Talk of cutting President Arroyo’s term next year to pave the way for a shift from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government at this point is "premature," her spokesman said yesterday.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo has rejected former President Fidel Ramos’ call for her to step down next year and run in parliamentary elections instead.

She would only cut short her six-year term, which expires at noon of June 30, 2010, if Congress clips the constitutional limit on her tenure, Bunye said.

Ramos, who has remained by Mrs. Arroyo’s side during her most serious political challenges, urged her on Monday to end her term next year, then run for parliament under a new Constitution that would scrap the US-style, two-chamber Congress and presidential system in favor of a federal-parliamentary form.

Ramos said Mrs. Arroyo should voluntarily step down instead of continuing to hang on to power despite being hounded by a credibility crisis. He warned that such a situation was hampering the economy.

Ramos emphasized his support for Mrs. Arroyo was "waning," but he was giving her a chance to take the necessary steps to put the country in order.

Bunye thanked Ramos for backing the President but said she had no intention of cutting her six-year term unless Congress shortens the constitutional limit on a president’s stay in office, and if that change is ratified in a plebiscite.

"President Arroyo sincerely appreciates the fact that former President Ramos supports her in the full range of nation-building efforts," Bunye said in a statement.

"But the President was elected to serve the country until 2010 and no one can take the mandate from her except the sovereign people through constitutionally sanctioned means," he said. "To talk about cutting the term of President Arroyo at this point would be premature."

Mrs. Arroyo has endorsed constitutional amendments, mainly to bolster the ailing economy and to introduce political reforms.

Bunye said moves to change the Philippine Constitution were already underway with Congress now studying the recommendations of the presidential consultative commission (con-com) that Mrs. Arroyo formed last year.

"We simply have to follow the train of these events to know and act upon the genuine sentiments and expectations of the people," Bunye said.

Bunye also disputed Ramos’ view that the economy was growing too slow. "President Arroyo is presiding over a growing economy, a strong plan for social equity and a clear road map for political change," he said.

While Arroyo allies in Congress — the majority — back constitutional changes, opposition lawmakers have vowed to try to block them, saying Mrs. Arroyo was only looking for a graceful exit from the crisis and was seeking to divert attention from allegations of election fraud.

Mrs. Arroyo won the 2004 elections by a slim margin, then was accused last year of corruption and rigging the polls. The allegation sparked her worst crisis and prompted 10 Cabinet members and advisers to resign and her key allies — including former President Corazon Aquino and Senate President Franklin Drilon — to abandon her.

Ramos stood by her side at the most crucial moment — support that some say prevented her downfall. But he has grown increasingly frustrated after his proposed reforms failed to rapidly materialize.

He strongly protested a proposal by the con-com to postpone next year’s general elections, calling it a blow to democracy.

Mrs. Arroyo survived an impeachment bid in September after her majority allies in the House of Representatives blocked it on a technicality. But coup rumors continue to swirl and opposition lawmakers have vowed to continue to investigate the vote-rigging allegations against her.

Ramos, a former general who was president from 1992 to 1998, remains influential with the armed forces and his withdrawal of support for Mrs. Arroyo could tip the balance of power.

In 1986 he helped topple the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and in 2003 backed Mrs. Arroyo as she crushed a rebellion by 300 mutinous soldiers.

Press the issue

In a press briefing last Monday, Ramos disclosed that he had turned down offers from the opposition, specifically from Drilon and former senator Vicente Sotto III, to forge an agreement with Aquino and deposed President Joseph Estrada in a bid to force Mrs. Arroyo out of office. Estrada is the opposition’s de facto leader.

Ramos’ meeting with Drilon and Sotto, held Monday last week, had Malacañang worried over the prospect of Ramos severing ties with Mrs. Arroyo.

The meeting fueled furious speculation of a falling out between Ramos and Mrs. Arroyo because of her unclear position on Ramos’ proposal for her to cut short her term.

At the press conference — held to disclose what transpired at the meeting — Ramos reiterated his support for Mrs. Arroyo but added it hinged on her stand on his proposal that she step down next year to pave the way for a shift to a parliamentary system of government.

The con-com proposes a five-year transition to a parliamentary system, and extending the terms of members of the Senate and House of Representatives beyond 2007 to enable them to constitute an interim unicameral parliament.

But Ramos said a better solution would be for Mrs. Arroyo to step down by 2007, "declare her intentions" to relinquish power and join the race for parliament instead.

Ramos first made his proposal shortly after the opposition publicly released audiotapes in which Mrs. Arroyo was allegedly heard discussing ways to cheat in the 2004 presidential election.

As early as then, Malacañang officials had said that talk of Mrs. Arroyo stepping down before her term expired was "premature."

Late last year, Mrs. Arroyo’s reluctance to agree to Ramos’ proposals sparked rumors that the former president had grown tired of supporting her and was plotting a coup.

Party time

Ramos will present his proposal at this Saturday’s top-level meeting of the ruling party Lakas Christian Muslim Democrats, which he founded in 1992 when he ran for president. He is the party’s chairman emeritus.

Mrs. Arroyo co-chairs Lakas with Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., a close Ramos ally.

It is unclear how Ramos’ view will affect Lakas. Most local government officials, from governors down, are party members and are pushing for an extension of their terms, which are currently limited by the Philippine Constitution.

Bunye is optimistic that the issue of Mrs. Arroyo’s term would be resolved at the meeting of Lakas’ national directorate.

"The group operates in a democratic way, so I believe this will be taken up and this will be discussed. At the end of the meeting there will be a position to be taken by the party," he explained.

Senate President Pro-Tempore Juan Flavier, who serves as Lakas’ senior deputy secretary, said the upcoming meeting is the "most major meeting of the directorate so far."

Flavier said Ramos’ views do not reflect the party’s position even though he is Lakas’ founder and chairman emeritus. "That is his personal view and not the party stand. He is entitled to his own position."

Flavier, who served as Ramos’ health secretary before he ran for the Senate, does not see the Lakas meeting as a face-off but rather as an effort to come up with a "semblance (of) a party stand."

"There will be an effort to unify, to get a consensus," he said, but added that it seemed unlikely that Ramos would be made to toe the line if the party stand runs counter to his position. — With AFP, AP, Marvin Sy, Christina Mendez

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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