I HAD expected a debate that would require each candidate to speak on the topics scheduled for February 21, all rehearsed and prepared for sure, but at least all ready to go into the nitty-gritty of what they plan for the country and the programs they have in mind, how doable these programs are and, as Miriam Defensor-Santiago had raised, where the money to implement these programs would come from.
But alas, this Commission On Elections (Comelec), GMA News and Public Affairs and Philippine Daily Inquirer-organized affair was far from being anything close to a debate. It was less than a non-debate – it was like a platform for the candidates to do what they might to win the election: crack jokes, mouth statistics, allude to one’s competition, and throw around some accusations for good measure.
It was entertaining for sure, and it trended worldwide, of course. But does that mean we were more educated, more informed, about our candidates for president? Of course not.
The importance of a real debate
The Fair Elections Act (Republic Act No. 9006) gives the Comelec the power to require “national television and radio networks to sponsor at least three national debates.” The Comelec also has the power to “promulgate rules and regulations for the holding of such debates.” (Comelec website)
But the Comelec has decided to imbue the term “debate” with more than one meaning. According to AM radio, the next “debates” will be in the form of a panel discussion and a townhall set-up. Neither are debates of course, just like this first one.
To have dismissed the required format is Comelec’s first mistake here. Because a formal debate is the best way to inform the public about where candidates stand on issues that are important to nation. If moderated carefully and professionally, it gets to the heart of issues and forces candidates to talk in detail about their programs and platforms.
In a real debate, moderators would not allow candidates to get away with motherhood statements and political attacks. Moderators would be in control the whole time, and can stop a discussion as they see fit.
Beyond form: content
Without the debate format, this Comelec-GMA News-Inquirer “debate” just became party to the lowest kind of election discourse there is.
You knew it the moment you heard Mar Roxas kick things off with a metaphor about being the most competent driver for nation, by pointing out what was wrong with the four other drivers beside him.
And then the first round started with a set of questions that revealed how this “debate” was not even going to pretend to be objective. Because a question about real estate acquisitions, health, inexperience, track record, and whether or not one is a role model, are five very very different questions. Only the unthinking (or blindly biased) would not see that the first question for VP Binay was on a different level from the rest of those questions for the other candidates.
No, this is not to say that Binay shouldn’t have been asked that question. It is to say though that all the candidates should’ve been asked that question too. Because while we are asking Binay to explain his wealth and assert that it contradicts the story of his impoverished childhood, so should the other candidates speak about their wealth, and whether or not it is right that they own so much property given the poverty of the majority in the country. If you’re speaking to Roxas, it might be important to point out that while his family has a sugar plantation in Negros, sakadas there earn only P50-80 pesos a day. (Anakpawis.com, 7 Apr 2015)
The question about track record should have also been asked of all candidates; this is after all what we are basing our choices on: what these candidates have done for nation before.
But apparently GMA News and Inquirer were happy enough not just with this format, but with the superficial questions. At some point Mike Enriquez was already speaking to the audience like in a gameshow ala Willie Revillame, getting the audience to make some noise and show some excitement. Kulang na lang mamigay siya ng jacket.
One gets a sinking feeling that at the heart of the decision to play around with the format of the “debate,” is the idea that it needs to be more exciting and entertaining. On yet another AM radio discussion, the need to keep the audience’s attention was mentioned, because it was presumed that people would just get bored listening to platforms and programs.
But this is the fundamental problem here: why are we thinking to entertain people in relation to the election? Certainly no one expects to be watching a game show or beauty pageant in place of hearing about what these candidates plan to do for nation?
This is an opportunity for Comelec and our media enterprises to level-up election discourse, to force an audience to engage in election issues instead of believing motherhood statements and pick-up lines, movies scripts and haciendero metaphors. It’s an opportunity to educate the public, and refuse the conditioning of trends and TV ads, where the one with the most money dominates discourse.
But first Comelec and mainstream media need to take the elections seriously, and quit with the need to entertain. Choosing who to vote for is serious business after all.
Here’s hoping those who are in charge of the next “debate” – TV 5 and The Philippine Star— can show us all how it’s done.