Presidentiables put best foot forward in last PiliPinas 2016 debate

Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN NewsA group photo of the candidates: (From left) Jejomar Binay, Miriam Defensor Santiago, Rodrigo Duterte, Grace Poe and Mar Roxas. Photo by Jonathan Cellona,

For the last time before Filipinos cast their ballots on May 9, the five presidential candidates laid down their platforms and faced-off in the Luzon leg of the PiliPinas Debates 2016 on April 24, at the PHINMA-University of Pangasinan in Dagupan City.

The United Nationalist Alliance's (UNA) Jejomar Binay, the People's Reform Party's (PRP) Miriam Defensor-Santiago, PDP-Laban's Rodrigo Duterte, independent candidate Grace Poe, and Liberal Party (LP) bet Mar Roxas showcased their respective campaign machineries and supporters, who cheered them on as they bared the specifics of their plans for the country.

The event, which was co-organized by ABS-CBN and the Manila Bulletin, was conducted in a town hall format. Issues on six salient topics—the West Philippine Sea, traffic and transportation, labor and contractualization, OFW concerns, health, and peace and development in Mindanao—were personally raised to the candidates by affected ordinary Filipinos from across the country.

In a special segment dubbed Fast Talk, hosts Karen Davila and Tony Velasquez also asked the candidates to comment on a wide range of issues from awarding new mining contracts, to the burial of former President Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, and the possibility of house arrest for former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Pressed for solutions

Perhaps the most crucial parts of the debate were when actual stakeholders pressed presidential candidates for solutions to the sociopolitical problems that affect them personally.

A fisherman who personally experienced how the Chinese coastguard would rashly shoo Filipinos fisherfolk away asked the candidates what they would do in order that they could peacefully fish in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and provide for their families.

Binay plans to talk to China to allow Filipinos to roam their old fishing grounds even as the Philippines waits for the final decision at the UN's Permanent Court of Arbitration. Santiago said she would attack the problem from both legal and diplomatic standpoints; while Duterte said he would personally stake his life by going to the Spratlys to plant a Philippine flag should the country win its legal case.

Poe reiterated that the WPS is ours and took a cue from other Asian countries by promising to protect fisherfolk through a thoroughly strengthened coast guard. Finally, Roxas promised he would provide the needs of fishermen even while actively pursuing international arbitration to its conclusion.

On the issue of traffic, a San Mateo, Rizal resident who commutes six hours a day to-and-from work asked what plans the candidates have to “immediately” address the problems of transportation.

All candidates indicated that they want to improve the railway system in and out of Metro Manila in some capacity. Santiago particularly advocated for the creation of a new capital city in Central Luzon, while Duterte advocated for the removal of dilapidated vehicles from the road.

Poe wants to attack the problem by appointing a traffic and transportation infrastructure secretary, and by clearing and widening roads. Binay emphasized that the problem is not in planning, but in the implementation of traffic and transportation plans, which is where his alleged executive expertise would come in. Roxas was keen to say that the present administration had already done what were being promised by other candidates, even as he proposed combining transport and public works into one department.

The candidates seemed to be most distinct from each other on the issue of Mindanao peace and development. Responding to an emotional question on this topic from a Maguindanaoan mother, Poe advocates an all-out war towards the most antagonistic groups while also advocating for “all-out development” in the region. Duterte understands the problem from a historical-cultural standpoint, and he seeks to address it by correcting the “historical injustices.”

Santiago thinks private armies in the region should be dismantled, while Roxas would prioritize enacting the Bangsamoro Basic Law when he is elected. Binay, on the other hand, thinks the root of the problem is poverty, and addressing it would address the problems that beset Mindanao.

The question of contractualization was also raised, and the candidates were unified in promising to ban “endo”, a practice by companies to limit employment to five months per contract, thus preventing them from regularizing employees. The candidates were also united in their plans to improve the plight of overseas Filipino workers, with variations on the specifics.

‘I dare you to withdraw’

For all the substantive and rich discussions that gave credibility to this final debate, it was still not spared from heated exchanges and bickering that characterized its Comelec-sponsored predecessors.

At one point during the discussion of health issues wherein the presidential candidates were asked what they would do to provide healthcare for Filipinos in far-flung barangays, Roxas and Duterte had a highly-charged exchange. The former challenged the latter to withdraw from the race should he be able to prove that the administration included Davao City in its flagship health programs contrary to the mayor’s claims.

While the Liberal Party candidate went as far as discrediting Duterte among the youth, saying he should not be emulated; the mayor from Davao City retaliated by teasing Roxas about his low standing in the pre-election surveys.

In a separate segment where each candidate was given a chance to directly ask questions to another candidate, Roxas asked Binay to explain the corruption allegations leveled against him once and for all. Binay was quick to point out that he had nothing to explain, and that he had nothing more to say, especially to people who are not willing to listen.

Binay and Poe also had a charged discussion, with the former accusing the latter of betraying her Filipino citizenship. Poe quipped that like many Filipinos overseas, the Philippines was ever in her heart, and that her experiences abroad give her an advantage in better understanding how to solve the problems that beset the country.