, OCTOBER 29, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - The time will come when the two leading players in today’s hottest political drama will meet in an attempt at unity and reconciliation – but not now.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye and Presidential Management Staff chief Secretary Cerge Remonde in separate interviews said President Arroyo and former President Joseph Estrada will likely meet face-to-face in the coming weeks.

“The President is willing to meet him (Estrada). But I suppose they would wait until they are both ready,” Remonde said.

Remonde said Malacañang is fully respecting Estrada’s wishes to spend most of his time as free man to be with his ailing 102-year-old mother, Doña Mary Ejercito, who has been in intensive care for weeks.

The last time Mrs. Arroyo met Estrada was in 2001 when he was still detained in a special security facility in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, and when he was hospitalized.

Remonde pointed out both Mrs. Arroyo and Estrada have the common goal of helping the poor.

Remonde earlier hinted at the possibility of granting a government position to Estrada to achieve the common goal of helping the needy.

“I’m sure that they will find a common purpose in fighting poverty,” he said.

Bunye, for his part, said there is no definite date or venue for the possible meeting of the two leaders.

But he expressed optimism that both are willing to set aside their political differences for national unity.

“It is our hope that Mr. Estrada will commit himself to support that (national unity) process. We would also hope that both those who support and those who oppose that decision will now turn their attention to efforts to unite the nation and putting an end to the divisive politics that make no contribution to promoting the welfare of the people of our country,” Bunye said.

National interest

Mrs. Arroyo pardoned the 70-year-old former movie star on Thursday, just six weeks after the Sandiganbayan found him guilty of plunder and sentenced him to life in prison.

Mrs. Arroyo said the pardon was part of a policy of releasing convicts aged 70 or above and for “national reconciliation.”

The pardon, however, was greeted with a heavy dose of cynicism because of the timing.

Critics accused Mrs. Arroyo of seeking to divert attention from allegations of corruption against her own administration.

Some quarters have even suspected Estrada made a deal with Mrs. Arroyo.

Bunye, however, stressed the need for the country to unite in order to facilitate the development of the economy.

“At the end of the day, the people and the nation come first and our focus must be on the road ahead, not the rocky path of the past. This case is closed; the future is open with promise and opportunity,” he said.

Bunye explained the pardon also took into consideration Estrada’s age as well as the deteriorating health of his mother.

“In the interest of national unity and in consideration of Mr. Estrada’s advanced age, the six and a half years he has served under detention, and the forfeiture of assets that remains in force, President Arroyo honored the request for pardon because she believed it was in the country’s (best) interest,” he said.

Malacañang continued to defend Estrada’s pardon, appealing on critics to take into consideration the nation’s interest.

Remonde particularly appealed to former President Fidel Ramos to support Mrs. Arroyo’s decision to pardon the former leader.

Ramos had strongly opposed Mrs. Arroyo’s decision to pardon Estrada, warning on the possibility that the issue would spark further political divisions.

“We would like to appeal to (Ramos’) statesmanship and urge the former President to join in our efforts to promote unity and reconciliation,” Remonde said.

Remonde pointed out the support from the influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the Iglesia ni Cristo, local government officials and business groups, which have expressed approval for the pardon.

He said majority of the senators even welcomed the pardon of the former president.

Remonde expressed doubts of massive protests against the pardon of the convicted political leader.

Citizen Estrada

As far as the wife of Estrada is concerned, the former president does not need a job from the government.

Former senator Luisa Ejercito brushed aside suggestions her husband would take any position from the government following his controversial pardon.

She said Estrada would focus on caring for his sick mother.

Ejercito said Estrada was not eyeing any new role following Mrs. Arroyo’s surprise decision to pardon him.

“There hasn’t been any offer, but if there was one, he would not accept it,” Ejercito said.

Hours after his release, Estrada spoke before a crowd of well-wishers that he would not run for any political office but would focus on helping the poor.

His statements triggered speculations that he would join Mrs. Arroyo in an anti-poverty capacity.

Remonde earlier hinted that Estrada could be offered a job in the administration, despite his long history of opposition to Mrs. Arroyo.

Journalists, on the other hand, are getting frustrated in covering the day-to-day events of the newly freed Estrada.

Angel Gonong, media officer of Estrada’s Partido ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) said reporters were not allowed to cover the former president since it was a “family day.”

Gonong said Estrada is expected to vote today for the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections in San Juan, where he is a registered voter. -With James Mananghaya, AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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