Editorial & Opinion

The great debacle

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It didn’t start off until after one-and-a-half hours because Vice President Jejomar Binay challenged the rules. He wanted to bring to the podium some documents he’d prepared.

Commission on Elections rules said no notes, so why did he want to? He said he wanted to provide support for some of the things he wanted to say that he thought important for the public to know. And he’d been told a couple of weeks earlier in a meeting with TV5 that he could. So for 94 minutes they argued, while the nation twiddled its thumbs.

Who was at fault? It wasn’t the Comelec; it promulgated the rules even before the first presidential debate. It was TV5 and Binay; they should have checked with the Comelec, the organizer of the event, but they didn’t.

But the worst fault was Binay’s. He held up the debate scheduled to start at 5 p.m. by arguing for 94 minutes. He may well have had good reason to want the notes, but as the other three candidates had been told, and agreed to, no notes, and higher Comelec officials insisted. He should just have resigned himself to the fact that there were to be no notes. The organizers should have insisted on starting immediately, without notes. There were over 10 million viewers waiting to hear from the presidentiables.

The rules for the third debate should be transmitted in writing to all the presidentiables, and they should sign that they’ve read, understood and agreed to those rules. Any dispute should be resolved well before April 24.

As to the organization, it was delightful to see young college kids as the ushers, receptionists, etc. doing the job, and doing it well. But the room was way too small, with those cheap plastic monobloc chairs crammed too close together. Try sitting for five hours in one of those. So I’m pleased to learn that the third debate will be held in the Presidential Town Hall at University of Pangasinan that can seat some 2,000 (the Cebu hall held a miserly 260).

I wonder if it might not be kinder to give the presidentiables bar stools to sit on. Three hours is a long time to stand, and the extra hour was a welcome development. For the last debate I’d go for four hours. These debates have proved to be a great reintroduction after 24 years of silence. Credit must be given to Comelec Chair Andy Bautista for organizing these events.

The second debate was a great improvement on the first. More time was given to make statements and answer questions, with others allowed to interact and to challenge. The polite kid gloves in Cagayan de Oro were gone. We’re getting to know the presidentiables better, and getting to make (I hope) a better-informed decision.

There being one debate left, let’s make it a really intense one. As my son said, “I was glued to my seat” (mind you, on a plastic monobloc chair). Let’s glue everyone to their seats, and let the fireworks fly. Pangasinan should be a no-holds-barred slugfest that will bring out the best, and worst, of each of them.

Antagonism is healthy in a presidential debate because you get to know someone’s personality better when they’re under attack. Their true personality comes through. That each candidate was able to direct a searching question to another was a great idea, too. Binay was asked by Mar Roxas about his alleged corruption, Grace Poe by Rodrigo Duterte on what she’d do if the Coast Guard were attacked, and Roxas by Poe if Mamasapano revealed President Aquino’s lack of trust in him.

And the arguments veered into wider attacks, which brings up a point for the third debate. I find a single question directed to a single candidate with too short a time to develop an answer too limiting. You don’t get much beyond the vote-appealing sound bite. More detail of how they would do it, and fund it, is necessary. I’d also address the same question to each of them. That’s the best way to see who is best. It does mean fewer subjects covered, but it’s a trade-off worth taking.

If the (few) important questions are carefully developed beforehand, there’ll be a more in-depth assessment of the candidates and their ability to lead the nation. The voting committee originally proposed should be called (immediately) to do this. Let’s have experts decide. Few of the right questions delved deep. For that, we need a really experienced, tough moderator. Luchi Cruz-Valdes did a good job, particularly toward the end when she brought a couple of candidates into line. But there was still that (Filipino) deference to community leaders. Presidentiables must recognize that the moderator must have absolute control - and exercise it - if the debate is to proceed smoothly and not get out of hand.

It must be clear that the third debate is NOT an ABS-CBN/Manila Bulletin affair but a public service that they are just kindly sponsoring, and the logistics for which they are organizing. In the next elections, it should be a Comelec-funded series of events as a service to voters. Congress should allocate a budget, with all media allowed for the widest dissemination possible.

I would certainly keep the section where each candidate can ask another a tough question. But with a longer three minutes to answer and room for two rebuttals. Have an argument. Let’s draw the crowds away from the usual mind-numbing programs they now watch - at least this once.

We also need something that binds candidates to their promises when they win. We can’t have another president who promises to open up government with a Freedom of Information Act - and then doesn’t do it. The next leader can’t be allowed to be so brazen.

The second debate was a much improved affair; the initial first-debate skirmishes were over. The gloves were off. Now they can hit each other in Pangasinan. But let’s get some thoughtful answers to some serious questions, too. Watch it. Inquirer.net

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Cynthia V. Reyes DMD