It was a first of its kind face-off amongst the Philippines’ presidential candidates which was organised by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) and sponsored by TV network GMA-7. But because the 2016 Presidential Debate (dubbed #PiliPinasDebates2016 on Twitter), was held in Cagayan de Oro City in the southern island of Mindanao, most of the topics fielded by hosts Mike Enriquez and Jessica Soho were focused on that region.
As such, Mindanao’s poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and corruption, dominated the debate topics fielded. To be fair, they were important issues. Mindanao is the Philippines’ second biggest land mass and regarded as the nation’s “breadbasket” accounting for 40% of national economic output in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. The region, overall, accounts for about 15% of national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Mindanao is often described as being “home to the Philippines’ poorest people” but most fail to mention that much of this poverty is concentrated in provinces dominated by Islamic people where terrorists, bandits, and other criminals reign with impunity.
Hands down, Senator Grace Poe stood out as the most articulate and fresh-faced candidate, perhaps owing to her youth and telegenic showbiz looks, general superior breeding, and confident demeanour. In comparison, the other candidates came across as out of their element and, quite frankly, old-fartish. Perhaps, being traditional politicians, they were unaccustomed to the confonting and real-time pace of a live televised debate (there hasn’t been any such of consequence for a long time).
For his part, Rodrigo Duterte hinged most of his arguments on the promise to deliver fast results across the most difficult of issues to tackle, staking his word and honour on a commitment to solve much of the country’s peace-and-order and corruption issues within a 3- to 6-month timeframe. The audacity of this promise notwithstanding, it is only Duterte who exhibits a boldness that could resonate with a largely cynical electorate. Whilst all the other candidates, in comparison, waffle out motherhood statements on how to address crime and corruption, the key takeaway from Duterte’s position is clear and starkly stands out as points the Filipino public can categorically hold his administration to.
Indeed, this lack of specifics amongst most candidates is the cornerstone of Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s arguments. Her challenge is simple: specific actions and plans should be backed by a proposed budget and funding approach. She admonishes the candidates with what is pretty much a no-brainer perspective — that promises are easy to make during election campaigns and requires no particular skill or qualification to issue. It was quite evident, however, that Santiago was struggling during the event. Her voice was quivering and she exhibited none of the fire, coherence, and clarity of thought she contributes in Senate plenary sessions.
Jejomar Binay, perhaps being the most experienced administrator of the lot, showed calm and deliberateness in the manner with which he delivered his arguments. However, he spent much of his airtime deflecting and sidestepping questions about his alleged “ill-gotten wealth”.
Quite unfortunate, however, that Liberal Party candidate Mar Roxas drew much of his arguments from the tired old Daang Matuwid (“straight path”) party mantra. This doctrine has, for some time, been suffering a crushing crisis of credibility thanks to the failure of the administration of President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III to deliver much around upgrading the country’s decrepit infrastructure and addressing the rampant criminality sweeping the nation. The administration has also failed to convincingly stamp out the criminal practice of pork barrel politics between Malacanang and Congress, mounting mere token gestures across a number of media circuses in a lame effort to be perceived to be “reforming” governance. Various high-profile infrastructure failures, notably in the country’s transport facilities also occurred under Roxas’s watch.
Suffice to say, most people’s eyes likely simply glazed over everytime Roxas parrotted the LP script he likely keeps in his back pocket most days. It probably didn’t help that barkadas across the nation played a bullshit bingo drinking game whenever Roxas’s turn to speak came up.
Filipinos will likely be awaiting the next instalment in this long-overdue COMELEC franchise. This one was criticised by some quarters as a bit tame and as coming across more as a question-and-answer forum than a true debate. Hopefully, there will be a bit more latitude provided in the debate structure next time to allow the candidates to engage in more pointed exchanges of ideas and points of view. An important outcome will have been more clarity around how the platforms and visions of each candidate differ from one another. Sadly, this episode fell short of that ideal outcome. The exercise was a step in the right direction, nonetheless. Kudos to the COMELEC for a job well done!
[Source of economic data: NCR GRDP Press Release 2014]