News Commentary

5 things to look out for in the first 2016 presidential debate

Jovan Cerda - Philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines - The Commission on Elections is holding its first presidential debate on Sunday in Cagayan de Oro City, setting the tone for what is turning out to be a hotly contested race for the top post in the land.

The poll body is hoping the debates will shed light on the candidates' platforms, and is counting on the public to choose the future president by being informed about the candidates' positions on different issues.

LIVE updates: Presidential debate in Mindanao

What can we expect from Sunday's five-way debate?

1. Will Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago deliver a performance that will inject a much-needed boost to her campaign?

In its latest pre-election survey released on February 15, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) reported an anemic 4-percent rating for Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, ranking fifth and way behind Liberal Party's Manuel "Mar" Roxas II who was at the fourth spot with 18 percent. Santiago's rating in the SWS survey has yet to go beyond 4 percent since June 2015.

The senator is known in the Senate as a fierce public speaker who does not back down from a debate, blasting her opponents with her distinct brand of wit, fury and vitriol. Her words transform into headlines, and have even earned her a spot among memes and and in Pinoy pop culture. Will a stellar performance on Sunday be enough for her to overtake other candidates in the race?

2. What will a homecourt advantage do for Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte?

Known for his tough talking and verbal gaffes, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte will kick off the presidential debates in his home court Mindanao, where 48 percent of registered voters want him to become the next president (based on Pulse Asia’s January survey).

Duterte has earlier threatened to walk out of the debate if he's not given enough time to talk, and with most of the crowd rooting for him, it's highly likely that he'll have a lot to say.

It would be interesting to know how the frank candidate who would not mince words even in public speeches would fare in a televised live debate. It would be recalled that after he drew flak from cursing at Pope Francis in one of his public speeches, Duterte has vowed to speak in a more sanitized manner, free from curse words that have endeared him to his legion of supporters.

3. Three-way fight among Duterte, Poe and Binay

If the SWS surveys are any indication, this election season is turning out to be an unpredictable one, with voters jumping from one preference to another. All three candidates have emerged as the general public's top choice for president: Vice President Jejomar Binay in December 2014, March 2015, January and February 2016; Sen. Grace Poe in June and September 2015; and Duterte in November 2015. In December last year, Binay and Poe were even in a virtual tie for the top spot. Most recently, Poe is tied with Duterte for second place, with Binay shedding a couple of percentage points but still holding on to the top spot.

A brilliant or poor performance in the first presidential debate can be the clincher for at least next month's survey results, especially in the age of social media where an otherwise innocuous statement can be twisted and spun for public consumption. With the top three bets having their own issues to address (Binay's corruption allegations, Poe's disqualification case and Duterte's alleged human rights violations), the upcoming debate will show which candidates can deflect the most criticism and present a solid platform that will differentiate their campaigns from the rest.

4. How will the administration bet fair?

Roxas has yet to lead in recent pre-poll preference surveys, and he shrugs it off by saying that he is only focused on the most important survey on May 9, when Filipino voters finally cast their votes for the next president. Having been anointed by no less than President Benigno Aquino III to succeed the presidency, Roxas is under enormous pressure to sway voters to his side through his promise of continuity. In his political advertisements, Roxas has packaged himself as a no-nonsense leader devoid of drama and histrionics - only focused on getting the job done. Whether or not the administration's bet will stick to hard facts or appeal to the voters' emotions is something we will find out on Sunday.

5. Will the debates even matter at all?

According to an analysis written by University of the Philippines Prof. J. Prospero De Vera III back in 2013 during the midterm polls, the short answer is no.

Unfortunately, in the Philippines, debates don't matter in shaping the voters' opinions on who to vote for. De Vera said despite refusing to attend any of the debates, Joseph Estrada won the 1998 elections and Fernando Poe Jr. won (or was allegedly cheated in) the 2004 version.

Political pundits have long held the belief that regrettably, Philippine elections are shaped by personality politics and not by the candidates' abilities to staunchly defend and articulate their positions on a wide array of important issues. While liberal democratic societies consider political debates as crucial parts of an election campaign, Filipino voters, it seems, do not. Will it be the same for 2016?

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