, JANUARY 1, 2007 (STAR) By Pia Lee-Brago - Those who earlier tried but failed to convince Vice President Noli De Castro to abandon President Arroyo in 2005 did not attempt to ask him this year to take over the presidency.

Last October, De Castro said the groups are reluctant to talk to him because of his refusal to accede to their plan for him to cut ties with the President in 2005 and succeed her.

“I believe they’re waiting for me to comment against the President or leave her because before, they failed to convince me to do so,” De Castro said.

He emphasized that he is ready to assume the presidency because he holds the mandate of the people but only if there is a vacancy.

“I don’t have to be told. I’m prepared for my constitutional duty if there is a vacancy,” he said.

For this year, several calls were made for President Arroyo to step down from office, but De Castro stood by her and rejected attempts to be used by groups planning to unseat her.

In April, Mrs. Arroyo was asked to take a leave of absence because she had to attend to her sick husband, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo. The President’s husband underwent open heart surgery.

It was a move that could have paved the way for De Castro’s takeover but he said that suggestions for the President to take a leave of absence was not necessary and it was her personal choice since she was performing her duties and was in control of the government despite the medical condition of her husband.

The Vice President said officials of the Arroyo administration were behind the President, especially during trying times both for her and her family.

In October, a member of the Arroyo Cabinet disclosed that De Castro was not ready to give his commitment to stand by the President in the crisis she faced this year as he seriously looked into the bribery scandal that hit her administration.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he and other allies of Mrs. Arroyo believed De Castro was “non-committal” and may not be counted on for support for the President to remain in power.

“We can’t say he will stand by the President. What we know is the Vice President is seriously studying the allegations like the bribery of 190 lawmakers and local executives,” the official said.

But De Castro declined to comment when asked about the official’s statement and merely reiterated that he is prepared for his constitutional duties as vice president and the President’s constitutional successor.

It will be remembered that the Vice President’s alliance with the President was put to test in July 2005 and he was closely watched if he would abandon her during the height of the political turmoil.

It was not only the legitimacy of the Arroyo administration that came in question after the wiretapped conversation between the President and Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano surfaced. Even the Vice President’s mandate was also tainted with accusations that he also benefited from the alleged massive electoral fraud in the May 2004 elections.

Strong contender

Now on his third year as second highest official in the country, Vice President Noli de Castro has not joined any political party under which he may run for the position that is a heartbeat away – the presidency.

The ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats has been talking to De Castro to join the party, an acknowledgement that he is one of the contenders for the 2010 presidential elections.

While the Liberal Party has endorsed Sen. Manuel “Mar” Roxas as its presidential candidate and Senate President Manuel Villar is also eyeing the presidency, De Castro has not shown or discussed his plans for 2010, nor entertained any political party with a machinery to support his candidacy in the event that he decides to join the presidential race.

Batted for Erap’s pardon

On Sept. 12, De Castro batted for a presidential pardon for former president Joseph Estrada after the Sandiganbayan handed down a guilty verdict on the plunder case against him, saying this is the first step towards national reconciliation.

The Vice President clarified, however, that a pardon does not mean the former President is guilty of the charges against him.

When Estrada was granted executive clemency, De Castro urged him to use the pardon to unite the country.

Not solid TU

After he cast his vote in the May 14 elections, De Castro admitted that he did not vote straight Team Unity, the administration’s ticket.

De Castro voted for senatorial candidates Joker Arroyo, Ralph Recto and independent candidates Manuel Villar and Francis Pangilinan because of their good “track record.”

He added that the President asked for his support for the administration candidates, but she was aware that he was endorsing other candidates who were not running under Team Unity.

Unresolved election protest

De Castro’s camp said that the impending dismissal by the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) of defeated vice presidential candidate Loren Legarda’s electoral protest must be based not just on mere technicality but on merit, particularly the lack of sufficient evidence and false claims.

Lawyer Romulo Macalintal, De Castro’s counsel in the electoral protest in the PET, said that after three long years, the protestant has miserably failed to prove her allegations of electoral fraud against the Vice President.

Macalintal said the PET issued a resolution junking the second aspect of Legarda’s protest after she failed to file the required deposit mandated by the tribunal rules.

Macalintal explained that there is also judicial precedent that a pending electoral protest is dismissed for being moot and academic when the protestant assumes an office incompatible with the subject matter of the protest.

Upon protestant Legarda’s assumption of her Senate seat in July of this year, De Castro’s lawyer said it was expected that the PET would dismiss her protest on ground of mootness.

Last April, Legarda partially withdrew her election protest against De Castro before the Presidential PET.

Macalintal said that Legarda’s election protest against the Vice President will eventually be dismissed after she withdrew 95 percent of the provinces she protested.

Housing czar

The Philippines received P13 million worth of assistance from the Chinese government to finance a feasibility study for the RP-China housing development program.

The Vice President, also the concurrent Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) chairman, said the assistance will come from the renminbi grant covered by the agreement on economic and technical cooperation between Manila and Beijing that was signed by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) and China’s Ministry of Commerce on Jan. 15, 2007.

Through the grant, De Castro said the government will be able to formulate a program that will identify viable housing projects as well as determine appropriate mechanisms for the program.

Under his leadership of government shelter agencies, a total of P24.9 billion in Pag-IBIG loans have been released to members from January to July this year.

The Pag-IBIG Fund said the loans released this year surpassed by 15.6 percent its loan performance for the same period last year.

The Pag-IBIG Fund has also further reduced the interest rate for housing loans worth P300,000 up to P750,000 to seven percent.

De Castro ordered in May the Pag-IBIG Fund to finalize a circular to implement the “Good Payor Incentive Program” for members to avail of a two-percent discount when they pay their home loans before the due date.

He also gave the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB) five months to “shape up” and improve their functions or face the consequences for failure to strengthen the agency.

Presidential adviser for OFWs

In October, De Castro met with concerned agencies to address the problem of the adverse impact of the peso appreciation on OFW remittances. The average annual dollar remittance of OFWs to the Philippines amounts to $8 billion.

In support of OFWs, it has been proposed that the hedging program offered to exporters could also be extended to OFWs.

The Development Bank of the Philippines’ two hedging programs consists of foreign exchange insurance which affords protection against peso appreciation, and forward contracting FX (foreign exchange) rate protection which provides for a contract where only the net difference between the dollar/peso forward rate and the market rate shall be settled at a given maturity date.

Libel case won

On May 10, 2007, a Pasay Regional Trial Court (RTC) sentenced the businessman-accuser of De Castro during the height of the 2004 elections to two to four years imprisonment after the court found him guilty of making defamatory statements against him.

Judge Francisco Mendiola of Branch 115 found Rafael Engle, who remains at large and has been ordered arrested to serve his sentence on the libel case, guilty beyond reasonable doubt of making defamatory statements against De Castro.

De Castro’s camp claimed that Engle was a supporter of former Sen. Loren Legarda during the height of the 2004 vice presidential campaign.

Earlier in December of 2004, Engle also lost the libel case he filed against De Castro.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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