Analysis: The 2nd PiliPinas 2016 Debate

cebu debate cover
The nation is abuzz over last Sunday’s second PiliPinas 2016 Debate in which four presidential candidates’ highly charged personal attacks disappointed expectations of a meaningful and enlightening discussion of issues and platforms.

Some candidates thought they did the hosting network and the audience a favor with their cringe-worthy verbal brawl, but the more thoughtful viewers waited for what the candidates have to say about their issues and ended up frustrated.

In this article, Professors Jean Encinas-Franco and Maria Ela Atienza of UP Diliman Department of Political Science weigh-in on the merits and demerits of what each candidate had to say at the second presidential debate. What are each candidate’s strongest and weakest moments? Who emerged as winners and losers? Read on to find out.

Strongest and weakest moments

Vice-President Jejomar Binay: Pro-poor but embattled and inconsistent

While Professor Franco cannot find a strong moment for Binay, Professor Atienza thinks that the Vice-President’s best moments were the beginning and the end of the debate, when he said that he intends to fulfill the promises he makes, and when he reiterated his pro-poor stance respectively.

“He lost his way for most of the debate because of all the corruption charges his rivals brought up and his inability to adequately address them, but his closing statement was clear, and he was the only one to focus on bringing quality public services to the poor and caring for fellow Filipinos,” she elaborated.

These commendations aside, both Professors Franco and Atienza say that Binay’s inability to address more completely the charges of corruption leveled against him was his most glaring weakness. Professor Atienza adds that his inability to clearly communicate his platforms (e.g., on taxes), his camp’s involvement in the debacle that delayed last Sunday’s debate, and his agreement to burying former President Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani also weakened his debate performance. According to Professor Atienza, that last point seems to stand contrary to who Binay was—a human rights lawyer during the Martial Law period and a champion of the EDSA Revolution and Cory Aquino’s administration.

Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte: Experienced but a copycat

For Duterte, one of his best moments was when he alluded to what he believes to be the advantage of local chief executive experience for the presidential post. “I think Duterte was, in effect, making a statement when he said that Binay was the most qualified candidate,” Professor Franco said, explaining that this point is also to his merit.

Professor Atienza, on the other hand, thinks that the mayor’s best moment was his statement on climate change disparity between rich and poor countries. “He was on to something when he mentioned the hypocrisy of developed countries in demanding all countries to contribute to lessening the impact of climate change when developing countries contribute less to global pollution,” she said, although she wants to see him elaborate on it.

But this is negated by his weak stance on energy, according to Professor Atienza, who thinks he was unable to explain adequately why coal-powered plants still operate in Mindanao. Professor Franco, on the other hand, thinks that Duterte saying he will just copy the programs of his rivals should he win the election sounded weak and did not help his debate performance.

Senator Grace Poe: Strategic but lacking

Professor Atienza said she cannot think of a best moment for Poe, noting that she seemed to be a “totally different” person from who she was during the first debate. Professor Franco, on the other hand, gives credit for Poe’s strategic move of stating her plans for Visayas, particularly her infrastructure platform for the region.

But she also went on to describe Poe’s answer to Duterte’s question on what will she do if coast guard vessels were attacked as showing her “lack of in-depth knowledge of policy-making and decision-making processes”, a glaring weakness on her part.

Professor Atienza, for her part, goes at length to describe the weak points of Poe’s debate performance. First, Poe seemed inadequate in her responses to issues, like the inability of the two houses of Congress to pass freedom of information legislation. Second, she seems inconsistent in her stance regarding Daang Matuwid, as she is attacking the administration without reserve when she promised earlier that she will continue its principles. “She seemed to overlook the fact that she was a guest candidate in the senatorial ticket of the Liberal Party,” the professor chided.

Aside from these, she was also “inaccurate or naïve”, especially in matters of foreign policy and presidential responsibilities, and she also failed to answer the issue on the coco levy fund, an issue that could emerge as potentially damaging to her candidacy.

Mar Roxas: Moralpolitik maven but also a bully

For Roxas, his best statements are about his way of distinguishing himself from the other candidates, as well as his defense of the administration’s handling of the Zamboanga crisis in 2013.

"(It’s) When he said na kailangan natin ng mga disenteng tao sa gobyerno. He was trying to sum up what supposedly makes him different from the rest,” said Professor Franco, referring to Roxas’ projection of an uncorrupt image consistent with his party’s Daang Matuwid principle. However, Franco said that “this might be construed to mean that people with pedigree like him are the only ones who can claim to be decent.”

Meanwhile, Professor Atienza thinks Roxas’ answer to Grace Poe’s question on the government response to the Zamboanga siege was his best moment. “He highlighted the need for a president to be present during crisis situations, whether it is a natural disaster, a conflict, etc. Being present does not mean that the president has no trust in his/her subordinates to do the work on the ground; he/she has to be present not only to coordinate response but to boost the morale of citizens and public personnel,” she elaborated.

However, Atienza thinks that when Roxas labeled Muslims as "mananakop" , the candidate missed out on the context of the Moro struggles in the Philippines.

But like the rest of the pack, Roxas also had his share of weak moments. Professor Franco thinks that Roxas’ constant bullying of Binay got in his way of performing better during the debate. “He was trying to pick on Binay at every opportunity that he can get,” explained the professor.

On the other hand, Professor Atienza thinks Roxas’ most pressing difficulty is being the administration candidate. According to her, he shows no signs of giving up the Daang Matuwid narrative, but nagging question is “what will he do differently?” Also, he might have detailed policy proposals, but he was not able “to explain why he did not act fast enough on many issues” when he served in various capacities in the government before, said the professor.

Winners: Duterte and Roxas

If last Sunday’s debate was a contest, who emerged as the winner?

Professor Franco thinks Duterte performed the strongest during last Sunday’s debate, but only because he was less bogged down by issues during the debate than his rivals. “Nobody asked him tough questions. Except for the mention of human rights concerns, nothing was hurled against him that would hurt his campaign and his message,” said the professor, adding that he also came out answering the questions with relative calmness.

On the other hand, Professor Atienza thinks that while no candidate stood out consistently as the strongest performer during the debate, Roxas emerged as much more prepared for this debate than the first. “He has more detailed data than the rest and can discuss them with some level of confidence. He was the only one to discuss indirectly what is expected of a president in concrete situations like the Zamboanga crisis or Yolanda,” explained the professor.

Losers: Binay and Poe

Binay already lost so much ground even before the debate started because of the debacle regarding notes. As Professor Atienza put it, the vice-president “did not endear himself to the live and TV audience because of the "notes" issue, leading to the delay of the debate.” She also believes that Binay was too embattled with the issue of corruption during the debate, a point that Professor Franco also raised.

Another debate loser was Poe. Professor Atienza succinctly describes that Poe had “no more grace under pressure”, adding that she was on the offensive to the point of being arrogant, something unexpected of a front-runner. The senator also “[butted] in without waiting for her turn and [seemed] to be confused with the rules of the debate,” said Professor Atienza.

For her part, Professor Franco believes that Poe lost the debate because of the confusion she showed, policy-wise and government administration-wise.

Conclusion: Exciting but sad and less meaningful

Overall, Professors Atienza and Franco think that precious airtime could have been spent better if the candidates devoted their speaking moments to discuss more concretely their plans and platforms, and not to bicker with each other. Professor Atienza acknowledges that the debate was more “exciting” than the first though it lacked in substance. Professor Franco laments how “sad” it is that “the Philippines is still grappling with the notion of a debate as an institution in modern democracies,” while hoping that the third and last debate will be better regarding format and discourse.