[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo chats with Sen. Edgardo Angara during a discussion on the economy at Malacañang yesterday. With them are Albay Rep. Joey Salceda (partly hidden), NEDA Director General Romulo Neri and National Anti-Poverty Commission lead convenor Domingo Panganiban. Photo by WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, FEBRUARY 6, 2007 (STAR) - By Jess Diaz and Paolo Romero - The Arroyo administration now wants Sen. Edgardo Angara and former senators Loren Legarda and Gregorio Honasan included in its "unity team" for the senatorial race.

Sources at the House of Representatives said it was the largely pro-administration Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) that proposed the inclusion of the three in the administration ticket.

Mrs. Arroyo’s chief of staff Michael Defensor said that persuading opposition leaders to join the unity team would mean the success of the administration’s reconciliation efforts.

Angara, who was at Malacañang yesterday, said he would make a decision within 48 hours.

"It’s not a compulsive thing, it’s a voluntary decision I would make, a conscious decision," he said. "I’m an independent senator but will likely join a political alliance."

The NPC is the political party founded in 1992 by businessman Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. when he ran unsuccessfully for president.

Two of the NPC’s new recruits, former senators Vicente Sotto III and Tessie Aquino-Oreta, are reportedly sure of landing slots in President Arroyo’s unity team. Sotto and Oreta deserted the camp of their friend, ousted President Joseph Estrada, two weeks ago to join Cojuangco’s party.

Another Estrada ally, actor Richard Gomez, will most likely be included in the unity slate. He was scheduled to formally take oath as an NPC member yesterday.

Aside from Gomez, two other actors, Edu Manzano and Cesar Montano, are being considered for the unity team.

Though Angara counts himself with the opposition in the Senate, the minority, led by Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., considers Angara an ally of Mrs. Arroyo.

Legarda was the running mate of the late actor Fernando Poe Jr. in the May 2004 presidential election. She lost to former Senate colleague Noli de Castro, against whom she has a pending election protest.

Honasan was also with the Poe camp in 2004 but is now languishing in jail for his alleged involvement in the 2003 Oakwood mutiny.

Legarda is part of the senatorial ticket that leaders of the United Opposition (UNO) revealed last week. Angara, Oreta and Honasan have been dropped from the opposition slate..

So far, only Defensor and congressmen Juan Miguel Zubiri of Bukidnon and Prospero Pichay Jr. of Surigao del Sur are sure to land slots in the administration’s Senate slate.

The three are staunch supporters of the President.

Fighting dynasty?

The son of Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. vowed yesterday to fight political dynasties, ironically, by following the footsteps of his father.

Senator Pimentel was with his 43-year-old son and namesake Aquilino III or Koko, when the latter filed his certificate of candidacy for senator at the Commission on Elections office in Manila.

The young Pimentel, who will be running under the Partido Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), is the second major opposition candidate to file his COC. Rep. Francis Escudero, who is himself a member of a political clan, was the first major opposition figure to formalize his Senate bid.

The young Pimentel’s Senate bid, and that of the close relatives of other incumbent senators, has spawned criticism that the opposition camp is a breeding ground for political dynasties. But the young Pimentel was unfazed sating his candidacy is "perfectly legal and moral."

Pimentel explained that there is no law that prevents somebody who is related by blood to an incumbent elected official from seeking the same elective position.

But if he wins in the elections - and he is confident he will - Pimentel said that like his father, he will introduce measures against political dynasties.

"My proposal is maybe we can start with one position and that is the most powerful position in the land and that is the office of the president," he said.

Kris endorsement

A huge crowd is expected to show up at the Comelec on Thursday when Rep. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III files his COC, accompanied by his sister, popular television host Kris Aquino and their mother, former President Corazon Aquino.

Noynoy, who will be celebrating his 47th birthday on that day, will also have his other sisters Ballsy, Pinky and Viel with him. Aquino is on his third and last term as a congressman of Tarlac, the hometown of the Aquinos.

Aquino will be running under the Liberal Party wing headed by Sen. Frank Drilon.

He refused to comment on the reported new Senate bid of his aunt Tessie Oreta, who is believed to be running under the senatorial lineup of the administration.

"I would be a traitor to my father and his legacy if I abandon the fight, and the Senate is the best route to continue the fight," he told The STAR.

The opposition lawmaker, however, downplayed reports of a looming family feud, especially with Oreta’s refusal to back out from the senatorial race.

"We are engaging in continuing talks to resolve the issue. We have maintained very good relations in spite of efforts by certain quarters to drive a wedge between us," he said. He stressed that he would continue his Senate bid even if his aunt persisted in her own Senate plans. "No problem. My duty is clear. The nation is in crisis which can only worsen," he said. The 12-man senatorial slate of detained President Estrada only has one slot for the Aquinos.

Villar on his own?

Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. said he is ready to run on his own if talks on the creation of a new coalition or a third force go awry.

"It doesn’t matter if I have to go it alone. The situation is quite confusing and not normal," he said.

Villar said the creation of the third force or independent middle force remains a possibility but many issues have yet to be resolved, like the question of which group he and his colleagues Senators Joker Arroyo, Ralph Recto, and Francis Pangilinan would seek alliance with. "There will always be a third force, not necessarily led by Villar," Villar said.

Villar promised to make a decision on Thursday, shortly after the adjournment of the 13th Congress, saying he would rather take care of legislation that needed attention.

As this developed, Makati City Mayor Jejomar Binay, head of the PDP-Laban which is working for the creation of an opposition senatorial slate, made a surprise visit to the Senate yesterday afternoon.

Binay said he came to see PDP-Laban chairman Pimentel and not for Villar. "But since I am here, I can also see him (Villar)," Binay said.

Binay said he and other members of the coalition will "sit down, talk" about the elections. "It’s a broad coalition, and we are all at the same level. No organization would be dictating," Binay said, apparently in reaction to statements by Pangilinan and Recto that the United Opposition or UNO is "dictating" on them.

Earlier in the day, reporters informed Villar of Binay’s coming visit to woo him to the opposition. But Villar said he would just set an appointment with Binay in the evening..

Recto, for his part, said the situation is not a cause to worry since it is still a week away from the Feb. 12 deadline for the filing of COCs. "In politics, one week is eternity,"

He stressed that the issues do not revolve around the Arroyo administration and Estrada, and that food, employment, technology, security and shelter issues should be the priority.

Sen. Luisa Ejercito also said yesterday that she is not seeking re-election to pave the way for the senatorial bid of San Juan Mayor JV Ejercito, a son of former President Estrada with former actress Guia Gomez. She also declined offers for her to run for San Juan mayor. – with Christina Mendez and Delon Porcalla

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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