THREE presidential debates served as forums for candidates to discuss their positions on pressing national issues. Given the personality-driven nature of Philippine politics, however, candidates also used the debates to either address or deflect allegations raised by their opponents and critics.

The first round of the official “PiliPinas Debates” was held on Feb. 21 at Capitol University in Cagayan de Oro City, and saw candidates answering questions about poverty, the lack of peace and order in Mindanao, and their track records.

The PiliPinas Debates were sanctioned by the Commission on Elections, and were mounted with the support of various media companies. It was in 1992 when debates of this scale were last conducted.

Vice President Jejomar Binay maintained that two of his 11 real estate properties were inherited, and that the remaining assets came from his earnings when he was still a lawyer. Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was firm that he would order the killings of criminals and drug lords should he become president.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago cited Stage 4 lung cancer as the main reason for her absences in the plenary sessions of the Senate, while Sen. Grace Poe defended her supposed lack of government experience by saying that a long track record in the government did not guarantee a good performance. Liberal Party standard-bearer Manuel “Mar” Roxas II addressed the government’s failed response in the Visayas after super-typhoon “Yolanda,” saying he did not abandon the disaster zone.

However, the first leg of the presidential debates failed to engage the candidates into a real debate, UST Political Science department Chairman Dennis Coronacion said.

“If we’re expecting a real debate that was bad. Why? Instead of informing the voters, they exchanged pleasantries. Hindi siya informative,” Coronacion said in an interview with the Varsitarian.

Issues were not discussed thoroughly as candidates chose to merely agree on each other’s statements on various issues. Duterte did not question Santiago’s capabilities to run the country despite her cancer diagnosis. Binay and Poe both insisted that farmers deserved subsidies and free irrigation, while Santiago and Poe were on the same page on the issue of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or the military agreement between the Philippines and the United States.

The first presidential debate, organized by GMA Network and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was divided into three rounds under the dual moderator format, with candidates given 90 seconds each to answer questions.

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Heated discussion

During the second presidential debate last March 20 at the University of the Philippines in Cebu, disaster preparedness, climate change issues, health care and education were among the topics discussed. Santiago was unable to attend the debate due to medical issues.

The debate was delayed by an hour after Binay insisted on bringing documents on the stage, claiming to have obtained the permission of the host, Luchi Cruz-Valdes of TV5.

Recognizing the importance of providing access to public information and documents, all candidates were in favor of passing the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.

Poe, a proponent of the FOI, said the Senate was able to pass the bill but the House of Representatives did not because of lack of support from the Aquino administration.

“At nangyari ‘yon sapagkat maski na sinasabi nila na ito’y prayoridad ng administrasyon, hindi po natin nararamdaman na tunay nila itong itinutulak,” Poe said.

Roxas, former secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government under the Aquino administration, promised to pass the bill.

Duterte and his running mate Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, signed a waiver over their rights under the bank secrecy law, to allow voters to examine their financial assets.

“We signed a waiver. We waived our rights so that anybody can, as I said, look into bank accounts,” Duterte said.

The waiver was later proven to be defective, and Duterte refused to open his bank accounts after Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, an independent vice-presidential candidate, bared that the mayor had up to P2.4 billion in transactions and in accounts with the Bank of the Philippine Islands.

Binay said he would issue an executive order ensuring freedom of information in the executive branch as soon as he got elected.

But Poe hit Binay’s absences in Senate hearings on allegations of graft and corruption during the vice president’s tenure as mayor of Makati. Binay in turn slammed Poe for turning her back on the Philippines when she decided to renounce her Filipino citizenship in 2001.

“Ang isyu, ikaw ba ay totoong Filipino? Ikinahiya mo nga, ikinahiya mo. Ladies and gentlemen, ‘yung oath of allegiance, nandun ang ‘I abjure,’” Binay said.

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Duterte steered the discussion to another topic while they were discussing the problem of drugs and criminality in the country, casting doubts on Roxas’ degree from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Duterte had claimed Roxas made it appear that he got a degree from Wharton. Roxas has repeatedly denied this but clarified that his Wharton diploma was for an undergraduate economics degree.

Roxas questioned Duterte’s lack of concrete plans to back up his pledge to eradicate drugs within six months.

“Hindi ko kinukuwestiyon ang kanyang pagnanais na tanggalin ang drugs—ang droga sa Davao o sa buong Filipinas. Ang kinukuwestiyon ko ‘yung kakayahan na magawa ito in six months at hindi basta-bastang mangyayari ito,” Roxas said.

All four candidates rejected the legalization of divorce, while Duterte and Poe were the only ones who raised their hands on the issue of bringing back death penalty. Asked if they were in favor of burying the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the burial place for heroes, military men and martyrs, only Duterte and Binay agreed.

Coronacion said the second presidential debate was more informative and “more interesting” because the public was able to be familiarized with the issues and personalities of the candidates.

“It was more exciting in the sense na the candidates were really hitting each other. [Mas naging informative ‘yung second presidential debate] kasi may mga nag-standout in terms of how well they did in informing the viewers about their platforms,” Coronacion said. “Mas nag-sentro sa issue, lumutang ‘yung mga issues at the same time lumutang rin ‘yung personalidad ng mga kandidato.”

In response to public complaints regarding long commercial breaks during the first debate, the time limit in the second debate was adjusted to 120 seconds for every answer and 30 seconds for a rebuttal. The event was hosted by TV5, with partners The Philippine Star, Filipino Star Ngayon, BusinessWorld and The Freeman.

Final leg

The final leg of the presidential debates took place at the Phinma University of Pangasinan last April 24. The debate covered traffic congestion and the lack of public transportation, electoral and political reforms, foreign policy, tax reforms and national defense.

Candidates were asked on how they would respond to the problems of Filipino fishermen in contested waters of the West Philippine Sea.

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Binay vowed to provide livelihood to the affected fishermen, while in the process of coordinating with the Chinese government to permit them to go fishing.

For Santiago, there were two ways on how the government could help: legal and diplomatic. In terms of legal measures, Santiago said she would call on the Coast Guard to “bomb” the Chinese vessels, while the diplomatic solution would involve formal talks with the Chinese government and maintain that “we have world public opinion behind us.”

Duterte said he would not go to war in case China refused to honor the decision in the arbitration case initiated by the Philippines before the United Nations.

“Ngayon ‘pag ayaw nila, then I will ask the navy to bring me to the nearest boundary dyan sa Spratly-Scarborough. Bababa ako, sasakay akong jet ski, dala-dala ko ‘yung flag ng Filipino at pupunta ako doon sa airport nila tapos itanim ko, then I would say, ‘This is ours and do what you want with me.’ Bahala na kayo,” he said.

Poe proposed to increase the vessels of the Philippine Coast Guard. She said she would offer scholarships to the fishermen’s children and provide new fishing equipment.

Roxas promised to help the families of the affected fishermen by ensuring the education of their children, and insisted that the government should never give up on fighting for the territorial rights of the Philippines.

As for the issues concerning health, both Binay and Roxas vowed to establish a health center in every barangay with complete facilities. Santiago said she would further enhance the coverage of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. and ensure universal health care insurance for all Filipinos.

Duterte said he would ensure that the number of doctors and nurses assigned per barangay would increase. He promised to commit funds from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. to shoulder the hospitalization of the Filipinos. Poe said Filipinos who cannot afford to pay their hospital bills will receive 100 percent subsidy from the government.

One of the segments was “fast talk,” where candidates were asked to briefly explain their position on a certain issue. Kathryn Jedi V. Baylon and Maria Corazon A. Inay

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