, NOVEMBER 4, 2007 (STAR) By Jose Rodel Clapano - The United Opposition may field the tandem of Sen. Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay in the 2010 presidential elections, dispelling speculations that the opposition is in disarray following former President Joseph Estrada’s acceptance of executive clemency for plunder.

Opposition leaders did not specify which positions Estrada and Binay may run for.

Former senator Ernesto Maceda of UNO’s elders committee made the announcement in Vitas, Tondo where a huge crowd had gathered to welcome the former president, the party’s titular head.

Estrada’s widely publicized Tondo visit, his first since his ouster six years ago, appeared to signal an early foray into the campaign trail

“We are asking Senator Jinggoy Estrada and Makati Mayor Binay to talk and decide for themselves who among them will run for president and vice president,” Maceda said.

“As the son of the masses, I will be your voice in the Senate,” Jinggoy told the crowd in Vitas, a large urban poor enclave in Manila.

The former president insists he remains with the opposition despite his pardon by Mrs. Arroyo for the crime of plunder.

“I will remain an opposition. I will not accept any position from the Arroyo administration,” Estrada said.

For Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, stubborn critics of Estrada’s decision to accept pardon from Mrs. Arroyo should “jump into the Pasig River.”

“To those who were against Erap’s pardon you could jump into the Pasig River,” the 77-year-old mayor, who is known for his unorthodox way of dealing with lawbreakers, said.

Maceda added that the opposition has even become stronger with the former president’s release.

“It is not true that President Estrada’s decision to accept the pardon granted by the Arroyo administration caused a crack in the opposition. In fact, it made us even stronger,” Maceda said. “You see, we are together,” he added.

Maceda also said Estrada should serve the remaining three-and-a-half years that he (Maceda) said was stolen from Estrada by Mrs. Arroyo.

“I was there from 9 a.m. when he signed the pardon and it was a roller-coaster day. We have not talked about any concession,” Maceda said.

Early campaign

Estrada’s slums visit appeared to be an early campaign for his son Jinggoy’s bid for higher office in 2010. The event had the trappings of a traditional political campaign, including a brass band, handshakes, and distribution of goodies. “I love all of you,” Estrada told the crowd.

“Erap can never repay his debt of gratitude to the poor. If not for the poor, Erap will not be where he is,” he said, referring to himself by his popular nickname. He was wearing his trademark wristband with the presidential seal.

President Arroyo pardoned Estrada, 70, on Oct. 25 – six weeks after an anti-graft court sentenced him to life in prison for plunder through kickbacks and illegal gambling payoffs following a six-year trial.

After accepting the pardon, Estrada promised to stay out of “dirty politics,” and vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to helping the poor. He insisted on his innocence, saying he may have committed mistakes as a public servant, but stealing taxpayers’ money wasn’t one of them.

He has denied any wrongdoing and accused Arroyo of conspiring with the elite, some Roman Catholic Church leaders and military officers to oust him.

Yesterday, he brought along volunteer doctors, including his wife former senator Luisa Ejercito, who is a physician.

He also invited residents to apply for scholarships with his foundation. “I am inviting you to come to the office of the Erap Para sa Mahihirap Foundation located at 409 Shaw Boulevard and apply all your children for scholarship grants,” Estrada said.

The crowd greeted Estrada with chants of “Erap pa rin!” (We are still for Erap), holding up his presidential portrait and homemade placards to welcome him.

On stage, Estrada turned the event into a State of the Nation Address.

“When I first ran for mayor of San Juan, the elitist made me a laughing stock. They said I would not do anything in government. But, you, the poor, were the ones who made me win as mayor. When I ran for senator, vice president and president, you, the poor, were the ones who voted for me and made me win by a landslide. You were also the ones who were watching all my movies that made me a successful movie actor,” Estrada said.

“When I was still the president, water rates were maintained in lower levels. In this administration, the water rates increased by 100 percent that many of our poor countrymen could not even afford to pay. When I was still the president, I removed government sovereign guarantee. That is why I got the ire of the rich. I told the businessmen that business is a gamble. If you lose, that’s it. But when they earned profit, they are not sharing them with the poor people,” Estrada said.

He said that after his ouster he twice rejected offers by the Arroyo administration, through then Justice Secretary Hernando Perez, to allow him to leave the country to avoid prosecution.

Estrada said he was forced to leave Malacańang in January 2001 to prevent bloodshed.

“I can look straight into your eyes because I did not commit any wrongdoing, especially graft and corruption, during my administration,” Estrada said.

‘Give Erap a break’

Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. appealed to other members of the opposition to give Estrada a break instead of hitting him for allegedly softening up on the Arroyo administration.

“Other opposition members are being unfair to him. He just got out of detention. It’s too early to judge him. All he wants now is to enjoy time with his family, go some places,” Villar said.

“He is helping and had helped the opposition a lot for the last six years even if he is in detention. It would not be good to make speculations at this time,” he added.

He said he believes Estrada did not enter into any secret deals with the Arroyo administration.

Some opposition members have criticized Estrada for allegedly distancing himself from calls for Mrs. Arroyo to resign. The distrust deepened when Jinggoy called Mrs. Arroyo “President” and even thanked her for pardoning his father.

Jinggoy also voiced his belief that Mrs. Arroyo would finish her term and that the former president and his family would never be involved in any destabilization attempts against the government.

Other senators said that with Estrada’s warming up on Mrs. Arroyo, there might be a need for a new force to protect the interests of the people.

Pardon timely

Sen. Edgardo Angara said the granting of executive clemency to Estrada was timely and “would mean closure to a regrettable chapter of national division and political unease.”

“One sad chapter in our history is closed and a fresh, hopeful one is opened. This is what the presidential decision granting full freedom to former President Estrada means,” Angara said.

“The festering wounds of national division brought about by an imprisoned Estrada cannot continue to scar our political, economic and social life. All of these wounds would hopefully heal with the grant of unconditional pardon to Estrada,” he added.

Angara admitted that President Arroyo’s decision would be heavily criticized but that history would ultimately issue a favorable verdict on it.

He said that he believes the former president would keep his word by avoiding partisan politics and “tantalizing offers.”

“The road to clearing his name and his reputation will be a long one but many are hopeful the former president will hurdle that,” Angara said.

Angara was Estrada’s running mate in the 1998 presidential election. He also served in the Estrada Cabinet.

Lim’s advice to Erap critics

Lim said that those opposing the pardon were unaware of the real circumstances that led Estrada to accept it. Lim said it was Estrada’s concern for his mother’s health that made him accept the offer of pardon.

“They thought he is now relinquishing his position in the opposition when it is only because of his mother’s condition. Any loving son would do the same thing,” Lim said.

He also rebuffed observations that the pardon has hurt Jinggoy’s bid for higher political office in 2010.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but there is no crack in the opposition,” he said.

Estrada’s wife Luisa said other members of the opposition “who are aspiring to run for higher position” could have spread the “rumors” of alleged discord in the opposition. With Christina Mendez, Aurea Calica, Evelyn Macairan and AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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