In a much staider affair, nine candidates outwitted each other at Sunday night’s presidential debates organized by CNN Philippines and held at the University of Santo Tomas. Candidates laid off their plans for the country – still enduring the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic – and took a few shots amongst them and the lone absentee, former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who enjoys an overwhelming lead in the surveys.
The three-hour debate, hosted by veteran journalists Pia Hontiveros and Pinky Webb, trended nationwide and was widely watched on YouTube, with nearly 200,000 concurrent viewers.
Here are some highlights that invigorated supporters and left some speechless.
Abella, Mangondato, Montemayor and Gonzales’s Platforms
For the first time, the general public heard the platforms of four least-recognizable presidential candidates: Ernesto Abella, Faisal Mangondato, Dr. Jose Montemayor Jr. and Norberto Gonzales.
Abella, who served as President Rodrigo Duterte’s first spokesperson, would shore up industries like agriculture, research and development and manufacturing, among others, to ensure that the ballooning debt – now standing at PhP11.7 trillion – would be put into good use. “Hindi dapat tayo matakot sa utang kasi depende rin kung saan natin ito ilalagay. Kung aantabayanan natin ‘yan, then we can actually supervise it and make it grow,” he said.
Mangondato, the lone Muslim candidate who has been proposing a federalist government, encouraged Filipinos to follow government protocols against Covid-19 but scolded them at the same time for exceeding the limit of sinfulness, thus resulting in consecutive calamities ravaging the country.
Montemayor Jr., a practicing doctor, economist and lawyer, pledged to strengthen the country’s healthcare system and untangle the country from the tentacles of the pandemic, which cost the lives of some of his classmates. “We’re laying our lives for the Filipino. Hindi lang noon, hanggang ngayon, nagtatrabaho kami para sa aming mga kababayan […] Ang mismong buhay namin, hindi lang bilang doctor, kundi bilang isang mamamayang Pilipino, isang Pilipino na nagmamahal sa ating bayang Pilipinas. Buhay hindi gamit,” he said.
And Gonzales, Defense Secretary under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, would restore the tenacity of every Filipino to defend their country, just like how Ukrainians have repelled Russian forces invading their country. “Dito sa atin, yan ang dapat nating inuuna, bago tayo humanap ng tulong sa mga kapitbahay at sa ibang bansa, palakasin muna natin ang character at quality ng ating sambayanan,” he said.
Montemayor vs. De Guzman
Few fireworks erupted in this presidential debate, but all of that was the making of one man: Dr. Jose Montemayor Jr.
Montemayor Jr. blasted Ka Leody De Guzman, standard-bearer of Partido Lakas ng Masa, for his pro-labor policies that may affect employers, particularly those owning micro, small and medium enterprises.
“Kayo po ba iniisip niyo rin ‘yung mga employers? Kasi you have to balance it. Gusto niyo ba sa pagtaas ng kanilang wages, parang kinakagat niyo na ang kamay [ng] nagpapakain sa inyo? […] Being a pro-labor, di niyo ba ini-impinge din ang right ng mga employers?” he asked the labor leader.
De Guzman rebutted: “Nasa isip natin ‘yan na kailangan natin lalo na ‘yung MSMEs. Nasa isip natin ‘yan. Pero ang gusto nating sabihin ba ay ipagpapatuloy nating pahirapan ‘yung ang ating mga manggagawa. Pasahurin ng slavery wage, ganon? […] Gusto ba nating patuloy na alipinin ‘yung ang ating mga manggagawa na siyang lumilikha ng kaunlaran ng ating bayan?”
In a second confrontational moment, the cardiologist lamented that some candidates, like De Guzman, are only focusing on the issues of one sector when all of them were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Nasa puso ko ang mga manggagawa pero tandaan natin maraming problema ang ating bansa,” the doctor vigorously asked.
To which the labor leader, a known critic of the Marcoses and Dutertes, replied: “Akala ko absent si Marcos. Nandito pala. Wala nang pinuri kundi mga kapitalista at wala nang kinagalitan kundi ang mga manggagawa.”
In another testy exchange initiated by Montemayor Jr., he claimed that Manila Mayor Isko Moreno received $15 billion of campaign funds from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, news he read supposedly from the papers.
“There is no such thing as $15 million. It is prohibited by law,” the incumbent mayor said.
When confronted about his dissent on returning excess campaign funds to donors, he pulled off a photocopy of a receipt issued by the Bureau of Internal Revenue, showing he paid taxes worth PhP9,671,047.00 on July 5, 2016, nearly two months after the 2016 elections, in which he placed 16th in the senatorial race.
“Wala akong moral ascendancy to answer no. I have to remain true to what I have done in the past,” he said in explaining his stance on the issue. “I want to be true to the people… Tinupad ko ang aking tungkulin bilang mamamayan.”
Moreno has been quizzed on the excess PhP50 million campaign funds he received in 2016. He said on Jan. 22 at the Jessica Soho Presidential Interviews that the money is now part of his income. “It’s with me,” he admitted.
That is the reason why, in his admission in October, his net worth has skyrocketed to PhP70 million. Moreno has said he is willing to release his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) if other presidential bets do so.
Sen. Manny Pacquiao has, once again, highlighted his religiousness in two hot-button issues: divorce and same-sex marriage.
Disagreeing on both, Pacquiao said he could not deviate from the teachings of the Lord, which opposes two signature advocacies of a liberal society.
“Pagdating sa personal na pagdedesisyon ay hindi po natin sila mapipigil, hindi po natin sila mapipilit. Mahirap naman na pipilitin ‘yung sarili na sang-ayunan mo sila na magkakasala ka naman sa Panginoon,” he said.
But Pacquiao said he has high respect for the LGBTQ+ community, a departure from his comments in 2016 when he said that gays are “worse than animals.” At the Jessica Soho Presidential Interviews, he said he was misquoted and had already made peace with them.
Moreno, Lacson and Robredo’s Breadth of Experience
Moreno, Sen. Panfilo Lacson and Vice President Leni Robredo used their public service experience to lay down their ambitious plans for the country.
Moreno touted his three-year leadership in Manila that he would replicate in the entire country, especially during the coronavirus crisis that tested local executives’ leadership.
“Salamat sa ating British government. Before na magkaroon ng first infection sa Maynila […] I was invited to London and be with Corona British Response Agency. And immediately […] I went back with the copy of the plan and immediately implemented it in the city of Manila […] Mineet ko kaagad ‘yung MHD, 6 director ng hospital, MPD, City Engineering, Manila Social Welfare, because what we’re seeing in Wuhan in few months before back, baka mangyari sa atin […] In Sta. Ana Hospital, we created the first infectious disease hospital […] We cushioned the socioeconomic impact to the lives of every Manileños by giving ayudas especially to poor drivers affected by such pandemic,” he said.
Lacson emphasized the need to combat corruption that has been ailing all parts of government. It has been the core of the veteran senator’s platform to resolve this longstanding issue as he has been exposed to it since becoming chief of the Philippine National Police in 1999.
“One of the solutions [to safeguard debt from corruption] is balanced budget kasi dapat [‘yung] nonessentials ‘di dapat nang binubudgetan,” he said. “Judicious spending, balanced budget ang sagot diyan sa national debt.”
On his first day in office, Lacson would waiver his rights under the Bank Secrecy Law to “set the tone” of his administration, one that would be marked by transparency and accountability.
And for Robredo, whose term as vice president was known for her frosty relations with the president and utilization of a meager budget for her social programs, she would be focused on the government’s coronavirus response, not sitting idly or simply waiting for a report from her subordinates.
“Ako po, bilang presidente, in every crisis, ako mismo ‘yung mangunguna. Nakita po natin during the pandemic na kailangan natin ng isang pangulo na nagle-lead from the front […] Kailangan ako mismo nakakaalam ng lahat na nangyayari on the ground kasi wala po tayong panahon to spare during times of emergency,” she said.
In 90 seconds, Robredo managed to respond to criticisms that she didn’t do anything during her term as vice president, listing her office’s initiatives to help the public during the Covid-19 outbreak, such as shuttle buses and dormitories for frontliners, Swab Cab, Bayanihan E-Eskwela and Bayanihan Hanapbuhay, among others.
Who Won The Debates?
Of course, it’s up to the voters who won the debates.
But some personalities and analysts offered hints on who had the upper hand in this three-hour affair.
Senatorial candidate Gov. Francis “Chiz” Escudero praised the performances of Abella, Lacson and Robredo.
“All the candidates did very well but Sec. Abella, Sen. Lacson, & VP Leni stood out! Sec. Abella & Sen. Lacson showed their vast experience & VP Leni was very “presidentiable,” full of substance, to the point & humble yet confident! Kudos to all!” he wrote.
For John Nery, editorial consultant at Rappler, Robredo “owned” the pandemic response question, but Montemayor’s answer was “powerful”.
“VP Leni owned that pandemic response question, for obvious reasons. But Dr. Montemayor’s answer, while paying tribute to VP Leni, Sen. Manny & Sen. Ping, also proved powerful because of his personal example: A doctor’s sacrifice,” he tweeted.
And on the Montemayor-Moreno scuffle, Nery said Moreno’s response might unexpectedly benefit him.
“Mayor Isko’s explanation why he could not answer the question about returning campaign donations to donors any other way (he had no moral ascendancy, he said, because he kept them but paid tax) was unexpected and unexpectedly effective,” he said.
And Aries Arugay, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, who criticized the debate format as “a graded recitation,” lamented some candidates’ stance that the Philippines should be neutral on the issue of Ukraine and Russia, where the latter had invaded the former in unjustifiable terms.
“Philippines’ neutrality in the #RussiaUkraine conflict is a cop-out. It undermines the UN charter & favors the aggressor. And no Isko, our foreign policy is not just about citizen protection, it is also standing by principles like the sovereign equality of states,” he said.