On the Second Presidential Debate: Discourses and the Appeal to Voters

presidential candidates-upcebuThe candidates for President at the 2nd leg of the PiliPinas Debates 2016 held at University of the Philippines Cebu on March 20. Photo from Philstar.com

One could only hope that what happened during the second presidential debate between candidates Jojo Binay, Rody Duterte, Grace Poe, and Mar Roxas was the kind of debate that the Philippine society seriously needs. But it did not seem so.

Instead of being educational so as to provide voters with ideas to make better-informed decisions, the debate jointly organized by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and TV5 at the University of the Philippines Cebu was designed to be entertaining for the audience and the viewers. The debate’s format and questioning resulted in bringing out the worst in the candidates and their zealous supporters. Logical fallacies, cheap shots, and name-calling were all over their argumentations. Individual questions were asked about a candidate’s reported major personal weaknesses and dark side, while critical national, societal, and economic issues such as development strategies, inequality, poverty, labor, infrastructure, corruption, education, health, crimes, welfare and social policies, foreign policy and geopolitical economy were not debated on substantially.

Even the long-running key contentious issues in the country on divorce, death penalty, and hero’s burial for dictator Ferdinand Marcos were only settled by mere a raising of hands.

Voters’ perceptions of the second presidential debate—which was the last nationally broadcasted debate before the attention of the people and media shall shift to elections in local government units (LGUs)—will factor in the next survey alongside other electoral and campaign factors in this closely contested election, where about 5% of the electorate are still undecided and a countless many are uncertain of their votes a few weeks before the election. However, the adage “All politics is local” persist in Philippine elections, where real electoral battles are fought on the ground in barrios, barangays, and municipalities through the use of activities and practices that have defined the country’s elections: money politics, patronage, clientelism, and violence. Thus, arguably, the crucial determinant of voting preferences in both survey and election results will not be the predominant discourses, images and comments made, read, and shared by netizens on the Internet, social media, and other online political news sites.

Time and again, the discursive strategies behind a candidate’s campaign message can make or break a presidential ambition. The foremost objective is to build a “hegemonic” discourse to secure votes by occupying the electorate’s minds and hearts with ideas. Discourse shapes a voter’s perception, which in turn becomes one’s belief and sense of reality. Public presidential debates are battlegrounds of competing discourses.

Rody Duterte

Contrary to how his critics have portrayed him, Rody Duterte is not that stupid, ignorant, or empty for making motherhood statements and giving too general answers during the debate. He is, actually, clever enough to simply understand the strategic value of the television medium – to say what most voters want to hear with a quick wit and humor. Duterte might also gain the votes from supporters of the ailing Miriam Defensor Santiago, who, like him, has the image of being both witty and feisty.

Using critical discourse analysis in gender and elections studies, the hypothetical question of Duterte on what Grace Poe would do as President if she is awakened in the middle of the night with the information that China’s military has attacked with missiles the Philippine’s coast guards in the disputed waters and islands evokes machismo. The framing of the question implies a prevailing patriarchal discourse in the macho political culture: that a woman cannot be commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Key to Duterte’s increasing popularity has been his mastery of tapping into the mobilizing powers of “populist” and “dominant” discourses. This includes the discourse on “law and order” which can cut across the ABCDE classes—that is to say, the lower class ordinary folks who wish for protection against petty crimes; the middle classes who yearn for safety going to and from their workplaces; and the rich propertied classes whose assets and businesses require security. Duterte’s popularized “anti-corruption” stance is likewise a discourse that is acceptable across classes and which can be accommodated by all factions—left, right, and center—in the political spectrum. He has also often deployed effective elements of “leftist” or “socialist” discourses in mass organizing and mobilization.

In the area of political economy, Duterte’s views are reminiscent of the zeitgeist of the 1960s-1980s—specifically, the discourses on social order, strong leadership, and industrialization that have historically characterizedthe policies and governance institutions of the successful economies of East Asia like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and China.These discourses are complemented by the use and publication of a series of anecdotes and narratives to effectively peddle Duterte as a no-nonsense leader with a modest lifestyle.

It would seem that unlike the other candidates with wealthier war chests, the Duterte campaign team’s monetary and human resources are not extremely consumed with pursuing aggressive black propaganda against rivals. But Duterte has by far the most energetic social media supporters among the netizens, adamantly defending him against criticisms and actively promoting his campaign discourse for real change.

Mar Roxas

Mar Roxas focused on “what must be said” during the debate. Though he is the anointed standard bearer of the outgoing PNoy administration to carry on the “Daang Matuwid” discourse, the seasoned politician Roxas has always been his own man, albeit often appearing choreographed in his public speeches and conduct. In the debate, Roxas was being himself – technical and analytical. This may seem most appreciated by the ABC classes, but such methods of discourse might not connect well, or sit well, with the anti-intellectual predisposition of the larger section of the Filipino electorate.

Moreover, whether Roxas’ assertion of being the only “decent” presidential candidate would win him votes from his weakest support groups in the D-E classes remains to be seen. Decency is an important character for a president. However, such message coming from a member of an elite political class runs the risk of being construed as elitist, as if elites alone have the monopoly to observe decency.

Roxas is undeniably the most experienced national executive among the candidates. Consistent with Daang Matuwid’s rules-based discourse on institutional reform, his answers and proposed solutions to society’s problems were framed within the mechanisms of the same, existing system and institution. This by itself, is a huge turnoff for the many already disappointed, impatient, or despairing Filipinos who now desire to hear out-of-the-box solutions to society’s ills, making them fall for politicians with messianic discourses like Duterte.

Evidently, it is not “what should be heard” that matters to most Filipino voters in televised debates. Rather, it is “what we most want to hear”. In other words, not “what” a candidate says, but “how” s/he says it.

Nevertheless, Roxas’ relatively good performance in the debate may earn him a few of Poe’s earlier votes, plus some from the undecided. But these may not be enough for him to build the much needed groundswell of support to win the presidency.

Jojo Binay

Jojo Binay tried to appeal to pity and legality in his debate presentation and arguments – perhaps as a strategy or due to the absence of any other options. A master of patronage (local) politics and the political wheeling and dealing in communities, Binay is not as stupid as he is often caricatured in mainstream and social media. He is very much conscious of the country’s electoral realpolitik.

With the barrage of accusations thrown at him, and recalling Filipinos’ voting behavior in the past, it won’t be surprising if Binay would win some sympathy votes, notably from those who currently consider him their second choice for president. Filipino voters—mostly from the D and E classes—have a history of voting and rooting for those they perceive to be underdogs, the unjustly bullied and unduly persecuted. Binay might have touched these voters’ compassionate feelings, while providing them with rational-legal arguments on the right of the accused to due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in the court of law. He also reminded the public of the politics-as-usual discourse by introducing Joseph Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda strategy of making up truths from lies that are usually planned in war rooms and utilized by opposing political rivals during elections.

Binay may have learned the art and science of the all-politics-is-local principle very well, but he has lost to Duterte in (social) media appeal. Corruption allegations continue to be a powerful discursive weapon used in Philippine elections to discredit a political rival and unearth a politician’s tried-and-tested “pro-poor” campaign discourse.

Grace Poe

The Bilang Pilipino SWS Mobile Survey conducted a day after the second presidential debate reports that 52% of the voting population watched the debate, with 39% naming Poe as the best performer, followed by Duterte with 31%, Roxas with 17%, and Binay with 8%. Granted, it would have been useful to have the same data regarding the first presidential debate held in Cagayan de Oro City for comparative purposes, and if the other 48% of the voters ideally also watched the debate. But even though the result of this survey does not necessarily mean voting preference in the next presidential surveys, nor will it translate into actual votes in the ballots, it is indicative of which and whose discourses the majority of Filipino voters prefer.

Notwithstanding the SWS postmortem survey of the second debate, some analysts, including those sympathetic to her candidacy, opined that Poe was better, if not the best, during the first presidential debate both in substance and form, and that during the second debate her demeanor and answers to questions exhibited her relative “inexperience” in public administration and policy-making. As a consequence, others infer that Poe may have lost a few votes from the ABC classes to Roxas, and sections of D and E to Binay – which is one of the many possibilities that cannot be ascertained by data from the SWS survey. Be that as it may, Poe’s advisers must have been good, and that more years of experience in governance, management, policy-making, and politics would have sharpened her perspective and deepened her knowledge of socio-economic and political issues as substantive foundations of her personal eloquence and charm (e.g., on the issues of BUB or bottom-up budgeting, coco levy, energy and climate change, national security and defense, and the OFW/immigrant/citizen distinction).

In her attempt at projecting an image of toughness against criminality to complement her “emphatic governance” discourse, Poe named a Medal of Valor awardee to be her government’s anti-crime czar. This seems to be her calculated response to the electorate’s concern with the perceived worsening lawlessness in the country. At the same time, this naming of specific appointees to the police and military institutions is a necessary challenge to her close rival Duterte’s anti-criminality, anti-illegal drugs, and anti-corruption discourses. Indeed, if Duterte means to eliminate crimes, illegal drugs, and corruption in three to six months upon assuming the presidency, then it is critically important that he must now specifically name the generals or the military and police personnel who his administration will empower and who shall enjoy the trust and confidence of the elected president as well as the power and resources of the coercive apparatuses of the government.

Interestingly, Poe’s camp has apparently changed their campaign slogan emphasis from “Tatak FPJ” to “Galing at Puso.” The latter depicts Poe as “amazing grace” with excellence and empathy while the former is simply vague and begs the question “what does it mean?”.

Binay’s use of a “nationalist” discourse to question Poe’s citizenship and her allegiance to the Filipino race may be a case of a right message made by a wrong messenger. In the experience of many societies' progress and development, the “nationalism” discourse has been healthy only in two spheres of social life: one is in the economy, and the other in sports. But nationalism has historically been harmful in the sphere of politics. The results of the May 2016 elections may provide a hint of the extent to which Filipinos prioritize the value of citizenship issues and how receptive they are to nationalist discourses.

So, who had the best game plan in the recent debate to secure votes in May 2016 presidential election, and whose discourse will be translated into actual votes and support: Binay’s appeal to pity and legality; Duterte’s appeal to humor and despair; Poe’s appeal to charm and sentiment; or Roxas’ appeal to intellect and decency? On May 9, the most effective discursive strategy and the most appealing campaign discourse of the time will prevail. After that may the Filipino people not live in interesting times.


Bonn Juego is an alumnus of the UP Diliman Department of Political Science’s bachelor’s program. He has a Ph.D. in the political economy of development from Denmark and is currently a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher in development and international cooperation in Finland.