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4 takeaways and commentary from the Mindanao presidential debate

By Jovan Cerda ( | Updated February 22, 2016 – 9:21am

Who do you think won the first presidential debate? Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Sen. Grace Poe, Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Jejomar Binay share the stage in Cagayan de Oro City. / AJ Bolando

MANILA, Philippines (First published Feb. 21, 2016 at 9:21 p.m.)  — It was a debate characterized by more agreements than disagreements, but it was not without its share of some zing and potshots. What are the key takeaways from the first PiliPinas presidential debate held in Cagayan de Oro City?

1. There was hardly a debate.

With a format where the next candidate gets to rebut the first speaker and the first speaker having the last say, one would expect an intense exchange where a fellow candidate casts a shadow of doubt or negates the statement of a fellow contender. However, that was not the case in the first presidential debate. In most cases, candidates have agreed with what the other had to say.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, for example, took a friendly tone and refused to comment on the issue of Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s health and her capability to govern the country should she win the presidency. He also had nothing to say against Mar Roxas II’s plan to help poor fisherfolk in the country.

Vice President Jejomar Binay, when responding to Sen. Grace Poe’s benign comment on his plan of action for the agriculture sector, said he had nothing against the senator’s position, even admitting that they are on the same page.

When Duterte talked about his resolve to break down agricultural cartels, Binay decided to talk about what he would do instead of questioning Duterte’s point.

On the issue of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, Poe explicitly agreed with Santiago’s firm stance that the executive agreement which the Supreme Court recently affirmed should have been ratified first by the Senate, much like a treaty. The debate became a contest on who had the better rhetoric, as the two candidates shared the same ideological position on the issue of US troops’ increased rotational presence in the country.

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It’s either of two things: the format did not allow for presidential candidates to clash with each other’s ideological differences, or the candidates were unable to exploit loopholes or questionable points from their opponents’ statements.

2. The time given was not enough to explain complex and crucial points.

For Roxas, it was about clearing his name from the MRT mess. For Duterte, it was about the viability of a federal system of government as an alternative to the current political setup. For Poe, it was about expounding on her accusations on the government’s “old ways” and alleged ineffeciencies. For Binay, it was presenting a robust position in support of political dynasties.

With only one and a half minutes to answer a question and 30 seconds to rebut a fellow candidate’s point, the debate showed the candidates’ capability (or lack thereof) to communicate efficiently and succintly under time pressure.

3. Some candidates, thankfully, decided to take off their gloves and engage their opponents.

From the opening statements alone, Roxas decided to pull ahead of the pack by differentiating himself from the other candidates, who, according to him, are faced with issues of corruption, anger management and inexperience – clearly alluding to the other presidential aspirants. Responding to Poe’s defense on her relative inexperience, he said the presidency is not an on-the-job training.

Santiago, to her credit, was clear in her opposition to Binay’s stand in support of political dynasties. The vice president said voters should be allowed to freely choose the country’s leaders, regardless if they came from the same clan. The senator said the Constitution expressly prohibits political dynasties, but Congress has so far failed to pass any law that would implement the anti-political dynasty clause of the Constitution.

Binay tried to deflect criticism by raising the fact that Santiago had a son, Narciso Santiago III, who served as a lawmaker for a party-list group. Santiago tried to save face by saying that her son only served one term and is no longer in government, but Binay was left unable to sufficiently defend, on a principle level, his support for political dynasties. It is important to note that Santiago’s running mate, Vice President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. belongs to a political dynasty, but Binay did not raise that point.

One of the highlights of the debate was the heated exchange between Binay and Roxas.

Roxas said anti-corruption efforts are the best plan to fight drugs, and highlighted the achievements of Oplan Lambat Sibat, the anti-criminality drive of the Department of the Interior and Local Government during his term as the agency’s secretary. Binay raised a valid but short point on implementation, but shifted the spotlight to what he was able to do to solve the problems of Makati.

Roxas blasted Binay’s concept of Makati, saying that there are two Makatis: the Makati of the Ayalas and the Makati of Binays, which is allegedly mired in poverty and corruption.

4. Most presidential aspirants were able to distinguish themselves from the others in their closing statements, but there could’ve been more comparison on why the values they espouse are the best.

In the end, the debate was largely harmless with the lack of direct engagement from the candidates. Binay decided to highlight his advocacy – good governance and compassion for the poor and decided to hit the current government’s underspending.

Santiago took on a more serious tone, saying that the race for president is not a personality contest, but a chance to educate the country on who to properly vote for.

Duterte, calling himself a “native” of the Philippines, talked about his love of the country, and promised to get rid of the country’s problems in a matter of three to six months.

Poe dedicated her final statement to Mindanao, talking about the region’s energy problems, her promise of better budget allocation and her vow to fight against corruption. She also hit the old solutions to old problems by previous administrations.

Roxas took on a personal tone, admitting that he has a privileged background, but said that he wants to be president because he wants every Filipino to be as fortunate as he is.

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