To the debate

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Unlike other electorates with directly elected presidents, Filipino voters have limited experience with the presidential debate. In France and in the United States, for instance, debates featuring presidential candidates are not only par for the course; they are, to shift metaphors, part of the course itself.

Not so in the Philippines, where debates are decidedly optional on the road to the presidential palace.

In 2010, for instance, the Inquirer held its first presidential debate the day before the start of the official campaign period. All but one of the 11 candidates showed up - a minor miracle, considering that, like the forums sponsored by the TV networks, the debate was not an official activity of the Commission on Elections. Other debates sponsored by other organizations had missing candidates, too.

The lack of interest, imagination or political intent on the part of the candidates mirrored the same lack in the Comelec then - and this misfortune explains much of the country’s sorry inexperience with the format.

In 2004, the leading presidential candidates refused to engage each other in substantive dialogue. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo opted to conduct small town-hall-type forums conducted by her running mate, then Sen. Noli de Castro. Actor Fernando Poe Jr. shied away from the forum format almost completely; his televised interview with newspaper publisher Max Soliven was a study in hesitation and reluctance.

To find the last instance of an official Comelec debate, which candidates were required to attend, we have to go all the way back to 1992, to the first presidential election held under the 1987 Constitution. The most famous of these debates was the one where the voters met the new Everyman, Mang Pandoy - a haunting, cautionary figure in Philippine politics.

On Sunday, Feb. 21, the first official Comelec presidential debate since Mang Pandoy’s time will take place in Cagayan de Oro City, in Capitol University. GMA Network and the Philippine Daily Inquirer are the lead organizers, in an arrangement brokered by Comelec chair Andres Bautista. (Other media partners will host two more presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate in the next two months.)

Candidates are encouraged to take part, but not required. However, those who do not show up face a penalty of sorts: Empty seats will remind a national TV, radio, online, and social-media audience of their absence. But - as of press time - all five presidential candidates have committed to attend all the debates.

The Comelec-brokered arrangement includes a range of formats and locations: The lead organizers drew lots; GMA and the Inquirer drew Mindanao, which came with a modified dual-moderator format. (Other media partners drew Luzon and the Visayas for the other presidential debates; Metro Manila was reserved for the vice-presidential contest; other debate formats included the panel and the town hall.)

Sunday’s forum is the first occasion in which all the candidates will share the stage at the same time; it is also the first that will require the candidates to respond (albeit indirectly) to one another. The format, in other words, is guaranteed to show the candidates - Vice President Jejomar Binay, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Sen. Grace Poe, and former interior secretary Mar Roxas - interacting with each other.

There will be time enough and chance for the candidates to explain parts of their platform to an avid audience, but those looking for substance may also find it in the exchanges. We do not expect to hear the snarky comments or see the mock heroics that have come to characterize the Republican Party’s presidential nomination contest in the United States, or endure the detailed policy discussions that mark the nomination process in the Democratic Party, but we will likely get the chance to see the candidates think on their feet, fight for their ideas, improvise and adjust to the occasion, and make themselves heard.

In other words, debate. That will, truly, be a first.