Analysis: The 3rd PiliPinas 2016 Presidential Debate

13062371 10153969984730168 974952044075130569 nA group photo of the candidates: (From left) Jejomar Binay, Miriam Defensor Santiago, Rodrigo Duterte, Grace Poe and Mar Roxas. Photo by Jonathan Cellona,

Last Sunday’s presidential debate was the last in a roster of COMELEC-sanctioned face-offs among those vying for the two top positions in the land. While it attracted some criticism for lacking zing, it was laudable for allowing a better and more humanized discussion of the issues that ordinary Filipinos face every day.

Unlike the second presidential debate, it featured a perfect attendance record as Vice-President Jejomar Binay, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Senator Grace Poe, and former Secretary Mar Roxas all came to lay down their platforms on a nationally televised forum for the last time before Filipinos go to the polling precincts on May 9.

In this article, UP sa Halalan expert Prof. Maria Ela Atienza from the UP Diliman Department of Political Science weighs in again on the performances and plans of each candidate. Which of the candidates had the best understanding of the country’s problems? Which plans to provide well-thought solutions? Who stood out and who failed to deliver? Read on to find out.

Strongest and weakest moments

Vice-President Binay: Unifying but evasive

Professor Atienza enumerated three shining moments for the United Nationalist Alliance candidate―his opening statement, his response to the question of whether he will campaign for Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales’s impeachment should he be elected, and his questions on the implementing capacity of the current administration.

Binay infographic

“His opening statement about what the Philippines will look like in 2022 was clear and comprehensive,” said the professor, adding that his statement about being “a healing and unifying president” so that he will not file an impeachment case against the Ombudsman is also a big plus.

But as with previous challenges to explain the corruption allegations hurled against him, he failed to set the record straight when asked by fellow candidate Mar Roxas. “This could have been an opportunity for him to settle people’s doubts about his integrity,” explained Professor Atienza.

Add to this is his seemingly unclear understanding of the Mindanao issue. “He looks at it purely as a poverty problem,” said Professor Atienza.

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago: Competent but obviously ailing 

For Santiago, her best moment seemed to be her turn during the Fast Talk portion. She “[answered] most of the questions quickly and [had] short, competent explanations,” according to Professor Atienza. It was also remarkable when she pointed out that her government would focus on preventive healthcare.

Santiago Infographic

But the visible queasiness hounded her throughout the debate, from beginning to end. “She was very far from the fiery, feisty, witty Miriam we are familiar with,” said the professor, adding that her weak opening statement and the unclear parts of her platform showed that she is “clearly way past her prime”.

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte: Adept but (still) a copycat 

Duterte stood out among his fellow candidates when he said that the Mindanao peace and development problem cannot be solved without acknowledging the historical injustices committed against its people. Professor Atienza agrees: “I think his most memorable moment was when he talked about the historical injustices done against the people of Mindanao”. This kind of understanding might be attributed to the fact that he hails from Mindanao.

Duterte Infographic

Yet his consistent stance on just copying the programs of his opponents should he win seems to be his biggest flaw. “His willingness to copy the proposals of other candidates is proof that he does not really have a comprehensive platform of government,” according to Professor Atienza.

She adds that Duterte also failed to address sufficiently the question raised by fellow candidate Grace Poe regarding women, and his answer as to which cabinet positions she would give to women in his administration “shows that he has low appreciation of women’s capabilities,” according to the professor. 

Senator Grace Poe: Sympathetic but apparently stuck in the past 

Poe’s best moment has to be her closing statement, according to Professor Atienza. Aside from having an arguably clear understanding of the important issues and problems that the country needs to address, she was the only one to sympathize with the poor young girl from Bohol who was featured by the debate hosts as epitomizing the hopes of Filipino children.

Poe Infographic

But if she closed very strongly, Professor Atienza found her opening statement wanting. She is also very obvious in her appeal to women’s votes “by using her being a woman and a mother in her statements throughout the debate, [but] she does not have a solid grasp of

women’s issues”. She adds that Poe’s well-researched answers to questions wasn’t enough as she lacked sincerity and a genuine knowledge of issues.

Former Secretary Mar Roxas: Clear, comprehensive while failing to acknowledge the administration’s obvious failures 

Like Binay, Roxas also had very good opening statement. More importantly, his closing statement that every Filipino deserves more “[highlights] the role of the President who should not only focus too much on people’s fears and worries but inspire people in fighting for decency, honesty, and the future of the country,” said Professor Atienza.

He was also confident in answering questions, especially during the face-off round. More importantly, Roxas was also able to elucidate on the specifics of what he plans to do about the various issues and problems discussed.

Roxas Infographic

But like the rest of the candidates, Roxas was not without flaw. His unwavering faith in the current administration led him to have a “tendency to overemphasize successes [while] he did not acknowledge some of [its] failures like unemployment, poverty, traffic, etc.,” according to Professor Atienza.

Winners: Binay and Roxas 

If last Sunday’s debate was a contest, Binay and Roxas emerged as winners.

Professor Atienza attributes this to their knowledge of government functions and processes from which they grounded their answers. The professor explained: “They have more detailed answers about preferred policies, programs and actions. The two of them seem to appreciate more than the others the dual roles expected of a Philippine President: as head of state and head of government.”

Binay, for one, highlighted the role of the President as a unifying figure. Roxas, on the other hand, stood as more confident. “He did not loose his cool too much, and seemed more inspired and inspiring,” as Professor Atienza puts it.

Losers: Santiago and Duterte 

And if there were losers, they had to be Santiago and Duterte.

Explained Professor Atienza: “Miriam was obviously unwell and this affected much of her performance. It was sometimes painful to watch her falter. She clearly is way past her prime. Duterte provided his usual rhetorics with no plans, though he seems less combative (and less funny)  now than in previous debates.”

Conclusion: Town hall format conducive to deeper discussion of issues 

These assessments aside, three glaring flaws stood out among all the candidates: seemingly insufficient understanding of foreign policy and legislative-executive relations, and lack of plan on how to empower people as agents of development. “Nobody mentioned ASEAN and the Philippines working with other claimants of the West Philippine/South China Sea. They also did not discuss executive-legislative relations, which is very crucial because the two Houses of Congress will pass the preferred policies of whoever becomes President.

They also did not discuss how to empower people and communities so that they can also help themselves, their communities and the country. After all, the President cannot solve all the problems of the country alone,” the professor elaborated.

In the end, the format of the debate itself lent a smarter and more humanized discourse on what needed to be talked about. “The town hall format allowed candidates to focus on issues and plans rather than on personal appeals and character issues. The discussion of issues also had a more human face with testimonies from Filipinos who deal with these issues on a daily basis,” according to Professor Atienza.