News Commentary

5 takeaways from the 2nd presidential debate

Jovan Cerda - Philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines — It was a debate unlike the first one, with candidates going out of their way to launch attacks against others who were prepared to retaliate. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the things that happened during the second PiliPinas Presidential Debates.

1. The great delay

The debate was supposed to begin at 5 p.m., but because of a major miscommunication, it took more than one and a half hours before all four presidential candidates appeared on stage. The debate was delayed when, according to moderator Luchi Cruz-Valdes, she mistakenly allowed Vice President Jejomar Binay to present documents during the debate. This was a lapse on her part, as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) explicitly told the presidential candidates that they are not allowed to bring notes during debates.

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In a statement, the TV5 management, one of the organizers of the debate, said: "On behalf of the management of TV5, the President, Mr. Noel Lorenzana and the head of News, Ms. Luchi Cruz-Valdes, would like to apologize for the inordinate delay in the 2nd Presidential debate that was brought about solely by the confusion on the rules implemented by the COMELEC on the Debate. In the end, the Management of TV5, the COMELEC and the presidential candidates, have agreed that despite the technical and procedural issues, it is more important to allow the debate to proceed and not deprive the public of their right to witness this historical, exciting and Aksyon-filled event."

Binay insisted that he was allowed to bring documents, but Comelec Chair Andres Bautista was firm that the four of them have to abide by the debate rules set by the poll body.

In a video record of the pre-debate events, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Sen. Grace Poe and Manuel "Mar" Roxas II took turns chiding Binay over his insistence to use the documents. In the end, he was not allowed to use them. The debate started at around 6:30 p.m.

2. Binay attacked for corruption allegations

If the first debate on February 21 appeared more of a forum than an actual debate, the second one showed the candidates taking off their gloves and giving everyone else a hard time. 

In a question about the Freedom of Information Bill, an apparently more combative Poe drew first blood when she came out swinging against Binay's refusal to attend multiple Senate hearings on the graft and corruption allegations being hurled against him. Binay earlier said he would issue an executive order in support of the freedom of information in case he wins the presidency, but Poe was quick to paint a picture of the vice president as a hypocrite.

Binay went off topic and decided to attack Poe instead on her "allegiance" to the United States and the junior senator being "ashamed" of the Philippines. 

Poe retorted, saying that one may be living in the Philippines, but is stealing money from the people. When Binay said there has yet to be a ruling against him, Poe attacked the vice president's defensiveness: "Did I say you're the one who stole?"

In a separate issue on Poe's position on the coco levy funds, Binay told the senator that there is nothing left of the funds despite the Supreme Court ruling to distribute them to farmer beneficiaries. Poe took the opportunity to launch a potshot out of nowhere, asking Binay if the funds were sent through Philrem. In a news report, the vice president was accused of using the remittance company to send $100 million to Hong Kong. The same company was tagged in the $81-million bank heist from Bangladesh Bank where the stolen money found its way to Philippine casinos.

Roxas, for his part, asked Binay to defend himself amid a flurry of corruption allegations, particularly the alleged overpricing in the procurement of equipment at the Ospital ng Makati.

The vice president initially did not directly answer the question, but instead opted to discredit the Commission on Audit by saying they are only doing table surveys that get discredited by the anti-graft court. 

In the end, Binay dismissed Roxas's attack by saying that prices don't matter when looking at the quality of procurements.

In an attempt to clear himself from all the attacks thrown at him ever since he announced his bid for the presidency, Binay challenged the candidates to sign bank secrecy waivers, but he was not allowed by the moderator.

3. Strong exchange between Poe and Roxas

Perhaps one of the more substantive exchanges in the debate happened between Poe and Roxas on the issue of Bottom-Up Budgeting (BUB). According to the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), BUB is a "one of the major reform initiatives of the Aquino administration" and has been tagged as such from several perspectives.

"First, it is seen as a component of its budget reform thrusts that are aimed at making the national government budgeting process more responsive to local needs. Second, the BUB is viewed as part of the democracy/empowerment reform as it opens another avenue for people's participation in local planning and budgeting and for generating demand for good governance at the local level. Third, it is also perceived as part of local governance reform in the sense that it provides incentives for good local governance," the PIDS noted.

Roxas managed to explain how BUB works, but Poe was sharp in questioning the potential of BUB to be exploited by the current administration to gain the support of local government especially during election season. Roxas responded by saying the BUB has been in effect since 2011.

With her point answered, Poe shifted her attack and questioned the inclusion of "menu" items in the budget which can be politicized by the administration by choosing which local government units and projects to prioritize.

Roxas spun this argument by saying that the menu items are there so that local officials won't be able to spend the budget on unnecessary projects like waiting sheds and welcome arches where they can emblazon their names even if the taxpayers paid for them.

This exchange between Roxas and Poe is particularly notable because out of all the exchanges in the debate, their question-and-answer portion was devoid of personal attacks and the two candidates decided to actually engage each other instead of bringing up unnecessary issues that could have only muddled the discussion. Poe raised sharp and legitimate questions, while Roxas was patient in explaining details and defending the administration.

4. Digressing from the main topic to attack each other

In what seemed like a pattern all throughout the debate, the presidential aspirants went all out on personally attacking each other even if they went off course from the main topic at hand.

For Binay, it was opening up the issue of Poe's lack of loyalty to the country on the issue on the Freedom of Information Bill.

For Poe, it was raising the issue of Binay's alleged involvement with remittance agency Philrem on the topic of the Coco Levy Trust Fund Bill.

For Duterte, it was insisting that Roxas's degree from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania is fake when they were having an exchange on how to best tackle the problem of drugs and criminality in the country.

5. Candidates reveal positions on controversial issues

The second installment of the presidential debates had a special portion where candidates were asked to raise their hands  if they are in favor of a certain proposal. They were not allowed to explain their position.

On the issue of divorce, no one raised a hand. Not including Vatican City, the Philippines is the only state in the world where divorce is illegal. A Jan. 19, 2015 report from Foreign Policy notes that the country "is the last holdout among a group of staunchly Catholic countries where the church has fought hard to enforce its views on the sanctity of marriage. Pope Francis, who visited the Philippines... has urged his bishops to take a more forgiving stance toward divorced Catholics, but this is a moot point in the Philippines: There is no such thing as a divorced Catholic."

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On the topic of bringing back the death penalty, Duterte and Poe were the only ones who raised their hands. 

According to the Commission on Human Rights, the Philippines was the first Asian country to abolish capital punishment when the 1987 Constitution prohibited the death penalty. President Fidel Ramos signed a law that brought it back, and the first execution since suspension happened in 1999 under President Joseph Estrada. Under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, death row inmates were pardoned, and the death penalty was again suspended in 2006.

For the last controversial issue, the candidates were asked if they are in favor of allowing President Ferdinand Marcos to be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes' Cemetery), a resting place reserved for fallen military personnel, heroes and martyrs. The topic is a thorny issue that has divided the public, with President Aquino speaking against it and Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. saying that his father deserves a hero's burial. Binay and Duterte raised their hands.

For a more comprehensive report on the debates, campaigns and the election period, visit bilangpilipino.philstar.com.

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