There are only three key takeaways coming out of the second round of the 2016 presidential debates or #PilipinasDebates2016 held in the Cebu campus of the University of the Philippines (UP Cebu): (1) Mar Roxas was the butt of jokes, swipes, and even a seeming collusion between his three opponents, (2) Vice President Jejomar Binay was not in his element keeping up and jumping into the fast-pace of the debate format used in this session; and, (3) Rodrigo Duterte and Grace Poe emerged as the most eloquent and witty of the lot.
Roxas, having been chief of two departments critical to securing Filipinos’ safety and security — the Departments of Transportation and Communication and of the Interior and Local Government — was bogged down by inquiries into his poor performance leading those departments. He was an easy target to potshots and the witty pasarings of the other three candidates having overseen botched management of natural disasters and police commando operations, and an abject degeneration of key infrastructure works that impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of Filipinos.
Indeed, the debate overall remained constantly in danger of sliding into degenerate mud-slinging between the candidates. However it was quite notable that the worst mudslinging was always between Roxas and all the rest. Remarkably, there was very little evidence of open animosity between Poe, Binay, and Duterte. The most bitter clashes were reserved for ones that had Roxas as the primary target of the fielded arguments.
When you performed badly, suffice to say, you are sentenced to spend the rest of your life explaining yourself. Ironic indeed, as there were many instances that some of Roxas’s responses to the pointed questions directed at him were borderline revisionist. For example, Roxas’s account of his involvement in the events that led to the massacre of the 44 Special Action Force officers in Mamasapano seemed to gloss over details that pointed to his being outside of President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III’s tight circle of trust. Instead, Roxas asserted that Aquino assumed that he was on top of the situation and routinely kept informed by General Alan Purisima about the operation. Whatever the case, the fact that Pursima, who, at the time, was suspended from his role as Philippine Police director, was Roxas’s supposed only link to the operation still makes Roxas look like a chump nonetheless.
That said, exchanges between Roxas and Binay, who were pretty much seriously at each other’s throats over most of the debate period, were not the highlight of the show. It was the composed and consistent eloquence of Senator Poe, and the sharp wittiness of Duterte that stole the show. Ultimately, this being a media event and the elections, as a whole, being a popularity contest, the trophies go to the most engaging stars of the show.
Duterte, for one, shone during the exchange surrounding the issue of the Philippines’ clean energy sourcing strategy. While Poe and Roxas liberally issued promises to do this and that and build this and that, Duterte kept to a simple and sensible position — the Philippines, a developing country, simply cannot afford “clean” energy. Duterte also pointed out what many commentators have long observed — that developed and wealthy nations that account for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions have so far failed to commit in a manner proportionate to what less-developed nations will have been expected to invest in the effort. In that regard, there really is no point, at this point, for the Philippines to be even putting a problem this big as a priority given the abundance of low-hanging fruit that leaders have yet to pick.
The show was capped by a replay of what transpired and was captured by the cameras over what comprised the more than one-hour delay on the start of the debate. Apparently it was Binay who was the cause of the delay thanks, supposedly, to a “miscommunication” over the rules on the use of notes during the debate. Nonetheless, the banter caught on camera between Poe, Duterte, and Roxas while they stood awkwardly on stage behind their respective podiums was priceless. Unfortunately for Roxas, his lack of charm and charisma was all the more evident in that period of awkwardness, the chemistry between Poe and Duterte clearly outshining his evidently dull personality. Both Poe and Duterte exhibited a natural talent for engaging people, skilfully working the audience while everyone waited for the Binay issue to be resolved.
Good show overall. The issues were adequately spoken to through both the eloquence of the candidates and the insights that emerged as a result of the exchange in arguments — which is the whole point of a presidential debate, an occasion out of which Filipino voters could get to know their candidates better all-around.