Good news for no-shows: Senatorial debates don't matter

Jovan Cerda - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Earlier this month, students from the University of the Philippines system challenged senatorial candidates to debate to highlight their stand on various issues. As it turns out, however, senatorial debates in the Philippines don't matter to the voting public. 

This is the observation of public administration professor J. Prospero De Vera III in a report published on Thursday by UP through its special elections website, UP sa Halalan 2013.

De Vera, who is also UP's vice president for public affairs, said despite the 2013 elections being the most media-scrutinized campaign in Philippine history, the attendance of candidates and their exchange of arguments do not count in shaping the voters choice in the country.

Despite refusing to attend any of the debates, Joseph Estrada won the 1998 elections and Fernando Poe Jr. won (or was cheated in) the 2004 version, he said.

"The ongoing senatorial campaign seems to validate this same conclusion. The UP Halalan 2013 team monitored the attendance of senatorial candidates in the major television debates and found out that some, such as Nancy Binay, remain strong in the surveys despite refusing to attend any of the debates. Binay and Enrile have been pilloried in social media for their refusal to attend debates, or debate against other candidates with little effect. Some candidates (Cayetano, Trillanes, Legarda and Villar) attended less than half of the debates and continue to get strong voter preference," De Vera said.


(photo retrieved from http://halalan.up.edu.ph/mediabox/images/AttendanceCheck1.png)


He added that there are several reasons why senatorial debates in the Philippines don't work. 

Unlike the United States senatorial debates where a single race is reduced to two candidates, the Philippines elects 12 candidates using a multi-party system which produces too many candidates.

"Multiple candidates create logistical and policy nightmares for debate organizers, allows candidates to excuse themselves since they know others will show up, and reduces the time allocated for each aspirant to answer questions," he said.

Secondly, political coalitions do not produce coherent platforms.

"Both Team PNoy and UNA (United Nationalist Alliance) are a mixed bag of political parties bound together by a “Daang Matuwid” mantra and “responsible opposition” tag without categorical positions on most issues. We can never make debates highlight competing choices nor force candidates to explain at length the details of their programs under this scenario," De Vera said.

Lastly, most television stations are unable to force or shame candidates who refuse to debate.

In addressing this issue, De Vera gave four suggestions.

He said there needs to be an independent non-partisan Campaign Commission that will hold debates and require candidates to join. The debates would be broadcast on free television and cost-shared among networks, the Commission on Elections and the academe.

Secondly, the debates should also ve conducted in regions to ensure that regional issues are discussed and regional stakeholders can hold side session for candidates in the constituencies.

Thirdly, social media reach should also be expanded, and lastly, the political party system should also be reformed.

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