FOR THE first time since the filing of their candidacies, seven presidential hopefuls trooped to UST along with their supporters to face each other in a forum last December 2.

Former defense secretary Gilbert Teodoro, senators Benigno Aquino III and Richard Gordon, former president Joseph Estrada, Olongapo councilor John Carlos de los Reyes, environmentalist Nicanor Perlas, and evangelical preacher Eddie Villanueva answered questions from students and personalities in “Harapan,” the presidential forum organized by the ABS-CBN News Channel, UST, Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, and the Commission on Elections.

Nacionalista Party standard-bearer Manuel Villar backed out at the last minute, according to news anchor Ted Failon.

Questions ranged from light ones such as “What vice or luxury can you not live without?” to those asking their opinions on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s bid for Congress, political dynasties, the Maguindanao massacre, and the reproductive health bill.

Two bets—cousins Teodoro and Aquino—appeared to have softened on their support for the population bill. Aquino did not say whether he would vote for it, but pointed out that the government should help parents decide on the number of children, and that the Church has a role in educating couples.

He noted that the population had doubled in the last 20 years. “We cannot deny the problem.”

Teodoro said the state should not have an active role in controlling the population, and that there was no need for a reproductive health bill.

“It is the moral responsibility of those who don’t want legislation to control population, to do it themselves in the way they think is moral,” he said.

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Gordon proposed to renegotiate with the country’s foreign creditors, to free up the budget for more spending on social services.

Many of the candidates hit Arroyo for seeking a congressional seat in Pampanga to stay in power.

Teodoro, the candidate of Arroyo’s party Lakas-Kampi-CMD, said he would “do the right thing” as president in response to a question on whether Arroyo as House speaker would have a negative effect on his administration.

On the Maguindanao massacre, candidates blamed President Arroyo for tolerating warlords in Mindanao, but Teodoro said the real issue was lack of money to strengthen the police and military.

De los Reyes, running under the Ang Kapatiran Party, said: “Kung hindi pinadrino ‘yan ni President Arroyo, hindi ‘yan mangyayari,” referring to the brazen slaughter of 57 people in Ampatuan, Maguindanao last November 23.

Partido ng Masang Pilipino candidate Estrada, who played the crowd, said: “I will not tolerate warlords in the area. If I were president, they would all be arrested in 12 hours.”

The debate happened four days before the proclamation of Martial Law in Maguindanao, which drew flak from lawmakers, who questioned its legality as there was no rebellion in the province. President Arroyo lifted the declaration on December 12.

Asked by the Varsitarian whether he would do ban so-called political dynasties, Liberal Party bet Aquino said the term “political dynasty” should be defined first, and that acts rather than personalities should be the basis so as not to restrict people from being in government for having the same surnames.

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Villanueva of Bangon Pilipinas Party said he would exercise “moral and righteous” governance and won’t allow relatives to abuse power.

“I would automatically resign in case my immediate relatives commit corruption or crime against the government,” Villanueva said.

The auditorium was filled with around 800 people, most of whom were supporters of the candidates. Prominent political figures such as Ernesto Maceda, Partido ng Masang Pilipino spokesperson, and Bayani Fernando, Gordon’s running mate, were also present.

‘Presidential alumnus,’ barred

Ernesto Ramos, presidential candidate of the Democratic Party of the Philippines and alumnus of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters (now Arts and Letters), said he was “barred” by ushers of ANC from entering the Medicine Auditorium to join the forum.

“I feel there is discrimination here. It was my first time to step again in the University after almost 30 years of stay in America. I feel that I am not welcome in my own alma mater,” Ramos, who graduated in 1960, told the Varsitarian at the sidelines of the forum.

Ramos, who tags himself as “The Alternative Leader,” said he was a speech writer for United States Rep. Carrie Meek in Washington, D.C. before he decided to “come home.” Danielle Clara P. Dandan

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