JANUARY 30, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo allayed fears yesterday of fraud and violence-tainted local elections in May, saying her administration is ready to police its own ranks.

Mrs. Arroyo, who remains hounded by allegations that she conspired to rig the 2004 presidential elections, was reacting to a pastoral statement issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) calling for greater vigilance against irregularities in the coming May elections. The letter was read in churches across the country last Sunday.

"The bishops and I are on one track for clean and peaceful elections," Mrs. Arroyo said in a statement. "Part of our quest to join the ranks of the First World in 20 years is to clean up the polls and let everyone take the first step forward."

She said that as part of her promise to ensure credible polls, she is pushing for a four-party summit between the CBCP, the Commission on Elections, independent poll watchdogs, and the Philippine National Police.

She said she hopes the participants of the summit will achieve a "comprehensive plan on stabilizing election hot spots, focused monitoring in possible areas of fraud, transparent poll procedures, and checks on illegal spending,"

In separate statements, the CBCP and the Comelec accepted Malacañang’s invitation.

Mrs. Arroyo stressed her administration will "advance all democratic processes" even as she called on administration and opposition candidates "to come together in fair and friendly terms and assert their collective political maturity, and bolster their platforms by pro-poor and development plans instead of the usual dirty politics."

In a short but strongly-worded pastoral letter, the CBCP said the Philippines "cannot afford yet another controversial electoral exercise that further aggravates social distrust and hopelessness."

Alluding to the doubts surrounding Mrs. Arroyo’s 2004 election victory, the bishops said "many of our current political problems, which have hindered fuller economic development and social justice can be traced to unresolved questions concerning the conduct of past elections."

The President, who has survived two impeachment attempts over the allegations, has repeatedly denied the accusations but has refused to answer them in detail.

At stake in the May 14 polls are 12 of the 24 Senate seats, all 236 House seats, and 17,500 gubernatorial, mayoral and other local positions, excluding barangay posts.

Analysts believe Mrs. Arroyo’s survival hinges on the result of the local elections because the opposition could win enough House seats to impeach her over allegations of electoral fraud in 2004. Mrs. Arroyo’s House allies used their overwhelming numbers to block earlier opposition attempts to impeach her.

CBCP, Comelec back ‘summit’

CBCP vice president Archbishop Antonio Ledesma said the four-party poll summit being pushed by Malacañang is "a good, concrete response to our pastoral statement on the elections."

"That is a welcome move. Although we have yet to discuss this in the CBCP permanent council, we are not expecting any objection on this proposal," Ledesma told The STAR. "I personally think this is a good development."

Ledesma said the CBCP, if necessary, is even willing to share its resources for the campaign for credible elections.

"We can make use of our social action centers nationwide as well as our workers and volunteers so we can monitor the elections at the grassroots level," he said.

Ledesma reiterated CBCP’s stand that the elections would be a referendum on President Arroyo’s administration. "We in CBCP believe that the May elections will be the measure of the people’s will and sentiment towards this administration," he said.

"If the camp of the President would still dominate Congress, then the Filipinos have already moved on from the unresolved issues."

The CBCP also expressed its support for the poll automation law recently signed by Mrs. Arroyo. In earlier pastoral statements, the CBCP stressed the importance of electoral reforms in restoring the people’s trust in the government.

"The Commission on Elections has to be transformed into a competent and reliable body beyond reproach. The call for resignation or even prosecution of a number of commissioners should not be lightly brushed aside," the bishops said. "The electoral process, including the counting of votes, has to be reformed and modernized."

Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos also welcomed Mrs. Arroyo’s call for a summit as well as CBCP’s appeal for vigilance in the coming elections.

"That’s beautiful. I was thinking of that a long time ago," Abalos said of Mrs. Arroyo’s invitation.

"We welcome the CBCP’s call for the people, particularly politicians and the electorate, to stay vigilant of any irregularities among candidates," Abalos told The STAR.

Commissioner Resurreccion Borra also backs CBCP’s call. "We are one with the CBCP in trying to exhort voters to be vigilant. We will work together with PPCRV and CBCP itself to ensure that coming election will be credible and that there would be no problem on the legitimacy of whoever is elected," Borra said. PPCRV stands for Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting. — With Edu Punay, Mayen Jaymalin, AP, AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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