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6 takeaways from the Luzon presidential debate

Jovan Cerda (Philstar.com) - April 25, 2016 - 4:43am

MANILA, Philippines — The debate on Sunday in Pangasinan was the last debate before election day on May 9. Who stood out? Here are our 6 takeaways.

1. Santiago grills Roxas

In what is possibly the most thrilling exchange in the debate, Santiago subjected Roxas to a grilling akin to a law school recitation.

The feisty senator began her questions by laying out what she believes as the three requirements for anyone seeking higher office: academic, professional and moral excellence. She asked Roxas to give at least three instances where he fulfilled each criterion, amid rapturous cheering from the audience.

Roxas said he graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the best universities in the United States. He also told Santiago that she is the best one to judge him during the time they worked together in the Senate in pushing for legislation such as the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement during the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Lastly, Roxas said that in his two decades of service in the public office, his name has not been dragged in corruption controversies.

Roxas didn't exactly give out nine answers, as Santiago required, but his response nonetheless made Santiago nod in agreement.

In the second part of their exchange, Santiago pointed out one of the biggest criticisms of Roxas's campaign: his perceived elitism. The senator followed up by asking Roxas if the road to the presidency has been narrow. Roxas, drawing inspiration from Batman, said "It's not important how you came into this world. What’s important is what you did with your life.”

The one-on-one between Santiago and Roxas is arguably the best one in the debate. In the square-off between Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Santiago, Duterte spent the time flattering Santiago. Between Sen. Grace Poe and Duterte, the survey frontrunner stuck to his guns and remained firm that he is who he is despite his perceived sexism. Vice President Jejomar Binay did not answer Roxas's question on corruption allegations. In the one between Binay and Poe, Binay just made a repeat of what he did in the second debate where he painted Poe as someone who is ashamed of her Filipino citizenship. Poe simply said that the courts have already decided in her favor.

2. Roxas dares Duterte to withdraw candidacy

It was a sober debate compared to the first two, but that did not stop Duterte and Roxas from trading barbs. A member of the audience asked the presidential candidates about their plans to address the lack of essential services in the remote parts of the country. Roxas was talking about the beneficiaries of PhilHealth and his plans to extend the service to far-flung areas when Duterte saw the opportunity to take a swipe at the Liberal Party standard bearer, saying that there are no PhilHealth beneficiaries in Davao City.

"I do not believe you. You have made so many promises in your term in the government on — lahat halos wala kayong naibigay sa tao. Puro daldal, puro announcement, puro lahat," Duterte said.

Roxas snapped and dared the frontrunner to withdraw his candidacy if he proves him wrong.

"Siguro kathang-isip ito ni Mayor Duterte dahil totoo na may mga natutulungan ang PhilHealth sa Davao City. Bukas, alas-otso ng umaga, ibibigay ko sa kanya ang lista ng mga Davaoeño na natulungan ng PhilHealth at ng gobyerno sa Davao City," Roxas said. "Mayor Duterte, I dare you. Kung may mapakita akong tao, pangalan, ospital na talagang natulungan sa Davao City, ikaw ba'y aatras?"

Duterte agreed, but retorted with a zing. "Kung totoo talaga ang sinasabi mo at naniniwala ang Pilipino sa iyo at dapat ikaw ang maging presidente at bakit sa huli ka sa rating?" he asked Roxas.

Being a national program of the government, there are, in fact, PhilHealth-accredited hospitals in Davao City where beneficiaries can avail of discounted services. Duterte's accusation could be interpreted as a general criticism of the government inefficiency, but an outright denial of the existence of PhilHealth beneficiaries in Davao City made his statement less factual and more hyperbolic.

3. Binay dodges corruption allegations once again

This happened before. In the second debate, Roxas asked Binay to explain the corruption allegations hurled against him and why projects in Makati City were overpriced, citing data from the Commission on Audit (COA). Binay initially did not directly answer the question, but instead opted to discredit COA by saying they are only doing table surveys that get discredited by the Sandiganbayan. 

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.

In the third debate, Roxas asked the vice president the same question, and Binay refused to answer.

"Kung ayaw makinig, nagbibingi-bingihan. Kung ayaw tignan, nagbubulag-bulagan, ha. Ilang beses ko na sinagot 'yang mga pinagsasabi mo, wala nang bago dyan, wala nang bago," Binay said.

The vice president decided to talk about his plans for the agriculture sector, instead. Whether or not that is a better strategy is a question voters will answer on May 9. What is clear, however, is that critics of the vice president are unrelenting in their effort to accuse him of being corrupt.

4. Poe grills Duterte on sexism

Poe asked Duterte on what will be the fate of women in his administration given that he has made pronouncements identifying women as the weaker sex. The senator also pointed out Duterte's controversial remark on an Australian rape and murder victim, and his calling his own daughter a "drama queen" when she opened up about her own rape.

Duterte took the opportunity to talk about gender-friendly laws in Davao City, but Poe was correct in asking him if the programs in Davao City are a license for him to talk the way he does.

"That is what I am. You are you. I am I. So 'yun ang identity ko dito sa mundong 'to," the mayor said.

Duterte could have come up with a stronger response on why his actions should take precedence over his strong language, but that already seems immaterial given that he still leads in the first survey results released after his rape 'joke' became viral.

The goal of the debate is twofold: for the public to know more about a candidate's platforms, and for the candidates to project a marketable image that will win them the election. Duterte's answer is clearly consistent with his strong image that has been his strongest selling point.

5. Duterte wants to be the hero

The candidates were asked about their positions in the West Philippine Sea dispute with China, and among the five contenders, Duterte stood out with his unusual answer. While the candidates talked about providing assistance to affected fishermen and pushing for diplomatic and legal means to resolve the issue, Duterte had another plan.

"Ang China naman po, has insisted sovereignty na kanila pero ayaw nilang mag-submit sa jurisdiction. But anyway, magsubmit sila o hindi, the court or the arbitration court can go on and hear the case. Ngayon pag-sinabi panalo tayo, ayaw ng China, I will not go to war... I will ask the Navy to bring me to the nearest boundary d'yan sa Spratly, Scarborough. Bababa ako, sasakay ako ng jet ski, dala-dala ko 'yung flag ng Pilipino 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. I would stake that claim and if they want to - you know, eh matagal ko ng ambisyon 'yan na maging hero rin ako," he said.

Duterte added that the Philippines should stress the legitimacy of its claim over the contested territories in the West Philippine Sea, but he was firm in saying that he'd rather stake the country's claim on his own.

While it seems like a heroic plan, Duterte could have explained more about the repercussions of his actions. Will China stop invoking their "indisputable sovereignty" over contested territories in the area if he plants a Philippine flag in one of the shoals?

Duterte opted to conjure an image of him as the nation's savior instead of focusing on his foreign policy, and some members of the audience agreed. He may have a detailed plan on engaging China amid the sea row, but his answer in the debate was more of a rhetorical commitment than a concrete strategy.

6. Less bickering, more explaining

With the exception of the exchanges between Duterte-Roxas and Binay-Poe, the third debate was decidedly sober. Unlike the second debate where the candidates ganged up on Binay, there wasn't much friction among the candidates because the town hall format was partial to constructive speeches instead of rebuttals and negations of the other's statements.

The winner of the debate was the candidate who was able to maximize the given time to discuss plans that stood out from the rest, at the same time project a strong image worthy of the highest post in government.

Philstar
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