News Commentary

4 things to look out for in the next presidential debate

Jovan Cerda - Philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines - The second round of the presidential debates will be held on Sunday at the University of the Philippines Cebu, giving the candidates another chance to impress the Filipino people with less than two months left before decision day.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago is skipping the second round of the PiliPinas Debates for health reasons, giving the remaining four aspirants more time to grandstand and give others a run for their money. What can we expect from the second presidential debate?

1. Will Binay go on full attack mode?

Vice President Jejomar Binay of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) is currently the most embattled candidate for the presidency. He has been implicated by the Commission on Audit (COA), the Anti-Money Laundering Council and the Office of the Ombudsman for various accusations of graft and corruption. He's also in a protracted word war with the ruling Liberal Party (LP) and President Benigno S. Aquino III himself. 

During the debate last February 21, he was at the receiving end of punishing blows from Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who criticized his support of political dynasties; and LP standard-bearer Manuel "Mar" Roxas II, who slammed him for hiding the "Binay" part of Makati that's allegedly languishing in poverty and criminality.

Just days before the debate on Sunday, Binay's camp has been on full throttle in attacking other candidates. In separate press releases sent this week, UNA said that during Roxas's stint as Interior secretary, COA uncovered a total of P7 billion in unliquidated fund transfers in the agency, pointing out a failure in implementing a number of projects.

The opposition party also insinuated that Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte may be liable for the misuse of P46 million worth of Davao City's special education funds in 2014, an anomaly that was committed under the watch of "someone promising to clean up the entire country within six months."

With his political party setting the momentum for a mudslinging extravaganza, will the vice president go beyond deflecting damning criticisms against him and push back hard on Sunday?

2. Will Poe survive an attack on her independence?

Survey frontrunner Sen. Grace Poe, whose fate in the polls was still uncertain last presidential debate, can now finally let out a sigh of relief after majority of Supreme Court justices agreed in a landmark decision that she has fulfilled the citizenship and residency requirements for the presidency. However, another issue has sprouted since.

Poe, who has talked repeatedly about her plans for the coconut industry last debate, is being accused by former Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization Francis Pangilinan of delaying the Coco Levy Trust Fund Bill which has passed the House of Representatives on third reading and has been certified as urgent by President Aquino. Poe is the vice chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food, and the Senate version of the bill is still stuck in the period of amendments.

The administration coalition hit Poe for not authoring and acting on the bill that laid out plans to manage the coco levy funds, and Duterte has called her a "puppet" of billionaire Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco Jr., the president's uncle and an alleged crony of former President Ferdinand Marcos. Cojuangco, who is backing Poe's candidacy, allegedly benefited from the taxes imposed on coconut farmers during the martial law period. 

Poe defended Cojuangco by saying that the tycoon does not control the funds anymore as all the shares are now with the government. She added that because of having "other ideas" to spend the funds, the government is actually causing the delay in its distribution to beneficiaries.

With opponents casting a shadow of doubt on Partido Galing at Puso's supposed independence from powerful influences, will Poe come up with a strong reassurance that she only has the public's interest in mind?

3. Will Duterte give his opponents a hard time?

Five days before the debate, the tough-talking candidate from Davao City said he'd rather sleep than participate in a debate where candidates will just brag about local accomplishments and platforms.

The mayor said he prefers a debate where candidates will be allowed to express themselves and talk about their plans. It can be recalled that during the first debate, Duterte brought up the issue of federalism and its potential benefits to the country. Time constraints, however, have prevented him from talking about it extensively.

Duterte, whose charisma emanates from expletive-filled candidness and off-the-cuff remarks, mostly took on a friendly tone last debate, agreeing with some of Santiago's points and even refusing to rebut fellow candidate Roxas in a question about helping poor fisherfolk.

Analysts and commentators have pointed out that the first round of the debates was hardly a debate, due to a lack of friction and engagement among the candidates who only spent most of the time trying to one-up each other. If the second debate's organizers took note and the moderators encourage the presidential aspirants to be more combative toward each other, Duterte will be thrust in a position where he has to abandon cordiality and go straight for the kill instead. Will he do it?

4. Will Roxas stick to his gameplan?

Roxas has packaged himself as the no-nonsense candidate, and his performance in the first debate focused on eviscerating Binay and discrediting all the other candidates, likability be damned.

However, despite the steely edge in his style, the administration's candidate was not able to translate his debate performance into preference survey points that were enough to overtake the candidates ahead of him.

In the latest Social Weather Stations survey, Poe pulled ahead with 27 percent, followed by Binay at 24 percent. Roxas, although improving from February's 18 percent, was still not able to take the lead at 22 percent.

Roxas has yet to snatch a solo lead in all pre-election preference surveys, and the second debate will show if the LP standard bearer believes that slow and steady wins the race or if it's time to try it again with the charm offensive.



The second PiliPinas Debates is organized by the Commission on Elections with TV5, The Philippine Star, Philstar Global and BusinessWorld as media partners.

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