MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – President Benigno Aquino III on Friday, May 6, called on the trailing presidential candidates to unite against front-runner Rodrigo Duterte, in a sensational finale to one of the nation's most divisive election campaigns.
This confirmed what vice presidential candidate Senator Alan Peter Cayetano told Rappler in an earlier interview, also on Friday, that Malacañang had initiated talks between the camp of Aquino's anointed bet, Manuel Roxas II, and the camp of Senator Grace Poe.
Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr initially denied Cayetano's claim, calling it "untrue and unfounded."
But in a separate interview with Inquirer on Friday, May 6, Aquino was quoted as saying "I'm trying to get all these different voices from so many sectors together and in that sense, perhaps help our candidates get together and have that united front."
The Inquirer news report said Duterte's about 30% voter support in the polls only means there is still a majority opposing his candidacy.
Asked by Inquirer if he was urging supporters of other candidates to initiate the call for unity, Aquino was quoted: "Yes, yes… That all supporters talk to your principals and say we need to see a demonstration of country before self."
Aquino also told CNN Philippines in an exclusive interview that he talked to Roxas and to Poe to get them to forge a last-minute partnership. The President admitted that he wanted Roxas and Poe – and also Vice President Jejomar Binay and Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, if possible – to all unite to defeat Duterte.
"The whole point is to get even two of them unite.. then we have more than 40%," Aquino said.
In the Philippines, a president is elected simply by who gets the most votes.
Duterte has 33% support, while Poe has 22% and Roxas has 20%, according to the May 1-3 survey of the Social Weather Stations.
"I call for unity, I call for decency, I call for democracy," the Liberal Party standard-bearer said, without saying whether he would be prepared to back out.
But Poe immediately rejected Roxas' proposal, saying that they had nothing to talk about and that she had no plans of withdrawing from the presidential race.
"Ano pa ba ang gusto niyang pag-usapan sa puntong ito? Pwede naman kaming mag-usap anytime. Pero pangungunahan ko na...kung iniisip nila ay pag-uusap sa pag atras, ako ay hindi aatras," Poe said in a chance interview in Laguna.
(What else does he want to talk about at this point? Anytime we can talk, but let me say this now...If they want to talk about my withdrawal, I will not back down.)
Binay's camp dismissed the President's call, too.
"With two days to go before the people choose their next president, VP Binay believes the President should just ensure that the election is free from cheating, violence, and intimidation. Besides, such a call for unity sounds hollow considering that the President has been hitting the rivals of Roxas throughout the campaign," said Binay spokesperson Joey Salgado.
Duterte, 71, has gained support across all sectors of society by fashioning himself as an anti-establishment politician who can achieve quick fixes to deep-rooted problems, particularly crime.
The Davao City mayor has vowed to end crime in just 6 months, saying that he would kill tens of thousands of criminals, then pardon himself if he was found guilty of mass murder.
Duterte also sparked outrage last month when he joked at a campaign rally that he had wanted to rape a "beautiful" Australian missionary who was sexually assaulted and murdered in a 1989 Philippine prison riot.
He has faced a barrage of last-minute attacks in recent days over allegations he hid millions of dollars in undisclosed bank accounts.
Upending conventional political wisdom, the controversies appeared to have fueled his popularity.
Duterte's campaign manager on Friday described the election as a "war of the classes."
"All the innuendos, attacks, and mud thrown at us and our candidate, are acts of desperation, of panic and of cowardice," Leoncio Evasco said in a statement. – with reports from Cecil Morella, AFP / Rappler.com