The Manila Times : Comelec should research presidential debating before staging debate marathons

19 February 2022

By Yen Makabenta | The Manila Times

First word

TO the surprise of everyone, including the candidates who declined to participate, the SMNI (Sonshine Media Network International) presidential debate turned out to be much be more informative and interesting than expected.

I still do not understand why the media persist in describing this shotgun interviews or forums as "debates," and I remain disappointed that the panel of interrogators are too polite to pose to the candidates the one question that interests me: "Why are you running for president, and what will you bring to the highest office of the land?"

Surprising SMNI 'debate'

Columnist Alex Magno, writing in the Philippine Star on February 17, saluted the network:

"The SMNI presidential debate held last Tuesday turned out to be well formatted and substantial. It sets a high bar for succeeding debates, especially those to be organized by the Comelec.

"Prior to this event, all the presidential forums and interviews were superficial. They tended to be more showbizzy and did not really involve anything close to a 'debate.'

"By contrast, the SMNI debate featured a knowledgeable panel of interrogators asking actual policy questions. They were allowed to follow up their questions and engage the candidates. This enabled the discussion to go deeper into the nuances and details of the issues.

"In addition, the format allowed the candidates to rebut their rivals. This allowed a more dynamic exploration of the issues and really tested the candidates' grasp of the policy questions.

"Four presidential candidates showed up for this debate: Ernie Abella, Bert Gonzales, Leody de Guzman and Bongbong Marcos. All of them made good account of themselves, although de Guzman seemed less interested in dissecting policy details and more interested in fomenting class hatred.

"The debate opened with a discussion of the most perplexing and utterly complex matter about the contending South China Sea territorial claims. The candidates were asked about their positions on both existing and emerging military alliances, the impact on our small fishermen and the path to a resolution of this territorial standoff."

Presidential debate tradition

Comelec could copy SMNI's format and style in its planned monthly presidential debates during the election campaign. But the elections body is better advised to do research first on the history and tradition of presidential debating. There are lessons to learn and heed, to wit:

  1. Until the second half of the 20th century, presidential aspirants did not debate face to face. Even now, when the debate has become an election tradition, some presidential candidates still choose not to debate.

The first debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy on Sept. 26, 1960 is often memorialized as the first televised debate.

The famous debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas occurred when they were senatorial candidates, not as presidential aspirants.

  1. Incumbent presidents and frontrunners — before 1960 and more so afterwards — resisted agreeing to debate because they would be giving their opponents a boost in stature by appearing on the same stage with them. They also feared that a less than perfect performance might undermine their advantage in the election.

In 1996, the billionaire presidential candidate Ross Perot was closed out of the presidential debate by a presidential debates commission, even though he had taken part in the 1992 debate and won 19 percent of the vote. The commission accepted the recommendation of its advisory board to exclude Perot on the ground that he lacked a realistic chance to win.

  1. In a decision affecting third party-candidates' future access to presidential debates, the US Supreme Court agreed that networks have discretion to exclude independent or minor-party candidates from debates that they sponsor, beginning in 1976.
  2. American-style presidential debates generally have not been copied among candidates for high office in international elections.

In Britain's 2001parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Tony Blair declined to take part in televised debates, although his opponents, Conservative leader William Hogue and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, endorsed the idea. It had been announced that Prime Minister John Major, the Conservative leader would face Tony Blair. But the debate never too k place.

  1. As debates became the norm after the Carter-Ford appearances, the formats became similar in the next three elections: a moderator, reporters as questioners, a time limit on candidates' responses, and opportunities for rebuttals.

In 1988, a controversial question was asked in the debate between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. The reporter Bernard Shaw of CNN, who was also the moderator, addressed the first question to Dukakis, if he would favor the death penalty if his wife, Kitty Dukakis, were raped and killed. Dukakis said no.

Dukakis's unemotional explanation did little to counter the Bush campaign's efforts to portray Dukakis as soft on crime. Largely because of Dukakis' answer, most commentators rated Bush the winner of the debate. Bush eventually won the election.

After the 1992 election, the commission dropped the panel of reporters and had all questions asked by the moderator.

PH situation

Turning to the Philippine situation and the present election cycle, it is pertinent to wonder whether our election system would benefit from the establishment of a presidential debates commission, which would set all the rules and conduct the debates instead of the Commission on Elections.

It is certainly sound to establish a bar for a presidential candidate to join the presidential debate. A candidate with no realistic chance to win ought to be excluded because there will always be too many of them, based on Philippine election trends.

When you apply this yardstick to the election this year, the "no realistic chance to win" would pertain to candidates like the following: Sen. Emmanuel "Manny" Pacquiao, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, labor leader Leody de Guzman, ex-defense secretary Norberto Gonzales and former press secretary Ernie Abella.

If the candidates are going to be interrogated mainly by the likes of Dr. Clarita Carlos of the University of the Philippines, and with her kind of intellectual rigor, I would not be surprised if Vice President Leni Robredo herself would wish to be excluded from the presidential debate, but without the label of "no realistic chance to win."

Exposure on the debate stage works in two ways. It means unprecedented exposure via free media before millions of voters across the archipelago.

It also means for the candidate baring yourself and your campaign, and all your frailties to the scrutiny of millions.

Having participated and faltered in debates in my own time, I believe it makes sense for some to want to opt out of a presidential debate. There is no penalty for running away.

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