By Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Nestor Corrales | Inquirer.net
For its presidential and vice presidential debates set to begin on March 19, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) will meet with the candidates’ representatives this week to lay down the ground rules and general topics.
But Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the survey front-runner among the presidential candidates, remained noncommittal regarding his presence in the debates, telling reporters in Pasay City: “I don’t know. I am still looking at the format.”
His running mate, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, herself a survey front-runner, has no intention of joining in any such activity.
“That is not yet in our discussion with our team,” Duterte told reporters when asked if she was planning to take part in future debates,
Marcos Jr. and Duterte were at a hotel in Pasay to attend a convention of the League of Municipalities of the Philippines.
The Comelec said that to ensure the candidates’ awareness of the format and rules of the debates, they would be presented a formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) to sign.
“We are preparing the debate kit that will have everything that the candidate will require, and we have an MOU that we want the candidates to sign so that our rules will be clear,” Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said at a Tuesday briefing.
The campaign teams will be given the MOU at the planned meeting with the Comelec this week “so they can study it, and then we will schedule the signing immediately after,” Jimenez said.
The candidates’ representatives will be informed of the general topics of the debates.
“We would like the debates to be fair. Every candidate will have an opportunity to do whatever research they need in preparation for the debates because they will be given the general topics,” Jimenez said.
He said the candidates would be given “a general idea of the topics to be discussed,” but not “specific questions.”
Jimenez also said the Comelec would address any concern raised by Marcos Jr.’s camp during the meeting.
‘Direct to the people’
Duterte’s camp initially did not give a reason for her skipping the Comelec debates.
But in a statement issued on Monday night, Duterte’s spokesperson, Liloan Mayor Christina Frasco, said she would rather concentrate on directly talking to the people on the ground.
Frasco pointed out that candidates were “at liberty to decide whether or not to accept invitations to debates.”
“It is also within a candidate’s discretion to limit his exposure to tweets and soundbytes only, as Walden Bello has done, or to have direct and personal engagement with the people, as Mayor Sara has shown this entire campaign season,” Frasco said.
Bello, the running mate of Partido Lakas ng Masa standard-bearer Leody de Guzman, panned Duterte for not attending the CNN Philippines vice presidential debate last Saturday.
“Walden Bello said Mayor Sara was a coward. But who among them is hiding from the people in this campaign?” Frasco said.
She said that “far from the convenience of preaching platitudes from the pulpit,” Duterte had visited 70 cities, towns, islands and provinces in less than two months, “speaking directly to the people, listening to their problems, bringing aid where needed most.”
“Mayor Sara has already decided to do a campaign without attending debates and instead work her hardest on the ground to continue to earn the trust and win the vote of the people as the next vice president of the Philippines,” Franco said.
Marcos Jr.’s camp had earlier said he would not attend the Comelec debates, citing “conflict in [his] schedule.”
Duterte said “the matter of debates” was not discussed “between me and [Marcos].”
De Guzman said on Tuesday that he had no objection to the Comelec’s decision to inform candidates in advance of the general points to be covered in the debates.
“We don’t see any problem … What we need to be on guard against is if a leakage of the actual questions happens,” the labor leader said in a statement.
Even the camp of Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso is fine with what the Comelec announced.
Domagoso’s chief strategist Lito Banayo, who advised then candidates Rodrigo Duterte in the 2016 elections and Benigno Aquino III in 2010, said he did not view the Comelec plans as a concession to Marcos Jr.
“In the past presidential debates (2010 and 2016), the Comelec also gave candidates general topics, but no questions,” Banayo told the Inquirer in a Viber message.
“It is OK with us,” he added.In the CNN Philippines presidential debate last Sunday, nine of the 10 presidential candidates were present. Only Marcos Jr. was a no-show.
Under Comelec Resolution No. 10764, a debate is defined as “a formal, moderated discussion, typically covering a broad range of topics, between and among candidates, employing various formats.”
The resolution promulgated on Feb. 23 cites Section 7 of Republic Act No. 9003, which states that the Comelec may require national TV and radio networks to sponsor at least three debates for presidential candidates and at least one for vice presidential aspirants.
“Organized political debates are invaluable tools in fostering the emergence of a fully informed electorate…” the resolution states, adding that public interest is served when debates are conducted.
In 2016, the Comelec organized three presidential debates, drawing lots to determine which media outfits would lead each one: the first was hosted by the Inquirer and GMA 7 in Cagayan de Oro City; the second by the Philippine Star and TV5 in Cebu City; and the last by Manila Bulletin and ABS-CBN in Dagupan City.
The Comelec also partnered with Facebook and Twitter in monitoring political trends and crowdsourcing questions for the debates.
Each debate had different formats: The first had three rounds where candidates fielded questions on various issues; the second involved a segment that allowed candidates to ask one another questions; the last had a town-hall format joined by sectoral representatives.
‘Biased against Erap’
In 2010, the Inquirer-sponsored debate for presidential aspirants at the University of the Philippines Diliman generated hundreds of questions using an online form sent to the Inquirer and Inquirer.net.
Then candidate Joseph “Erap” Estrada skipped the event, telling the Inquirer the day before that he had another appointment and that he was “just wasting [his] time because others are not attending anyway.”
But his then spokesperson, Margaux Salcedo, said their camp’s executive committee “felt that the Inquirer is always biased against Erap, that it would work more harm than good to attend…”
For this election campaign, Marcos Jr. has been criticized for declining major presidential debates and forums either for supposed “bias” or conflict in schedule.
But he joined the presidential interview of radio dzRH as well as the presidential forum organized by SMNI. The network is owned by Mr. Duterte’s spiritual adviser Apollo Quiboloy, who is wanted in the United States for sex trafficking and other charges.