by Dr. Nicole Curato
Asking tough questions should challenge presidential aspirants to go beyond bullet points of beautiful things
“E di meron,” was the student’s curt response after Vice President Jejomar Binay was left with no choice but to admit that informal settlers – “about 3 or 5 percent” – continue to live in Makati.
This encounter happened a week ago when the Vice President took part at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños’s (UPLB) forum on governance and transparency. Students and faculty engaged in a candid conversation with the man who wants to become president. The forum covered a range of issues including dynasties, corruption and extra-judicial killings.
Forums like this breathe life into a toxic political environment. Thus far, the pre-campaign season has been defined by tasteless political point scoring – from exchanges of charots and chakas to ambiguous and almost meaningless statements of presidential contenders in carefully staged events.
This is why UPLB’s town hall-style forum was an occasion that must not be taken for granted. The forum illustrated the power of citizens to redefine the quality of political conversations. It set the standard on how precise presidential aspirants should be when making claims. It showed how a vigilant audience can enforce accountability–fudging answers will be called out, evading responsibility will be booed.
Talk is Cheap
Philippine politics has never had a dearth of orators capable of delivering glossy sound bites. Politicians who can flawlessly deliver tautologies and motherhood statements personify the impression that talk is cheap. But talk can also be meaningful, especially when citizens ask tough questions and demand thoughtful answers.
Asking tough questions forces candidates to elaborate on their positions. It challenges them to go beyond bullet points of beautiful things. To ask tough questions is to be insistent that flesh is put on the bones of abstract promises. It empowers citizens to distinguish rhetoric from reality. It adds depth to our political conversation by going beyond platitudes and exposing candidates who are unable to provide a concrete roadmap to their vision for the country. Tough questions can reveal a candidate’s character. It can unmask a person’s instincts – the choice to lie, to pander, to duck, or to tell the truth.
Culture of Inquiry
The UPLB forum has successfully promoted the culture of asking tough questions. A direct question on political advertisements put Binay on record saying that none of the taxpayers’ money was spent on these commercials, which citizens, in turn, can fact check.
The Student Council Vice President’s line of questioning compelled the Vice President to admit that his role in the Aquino administration was mere “organizational,” not “functional.” This left audiences jeering the Vice President’s claim that being the second highest elected official of the land has very little authority.
It is too early to lose hope and concede that the campaign season will be reduced to a battle of guns, goons, gold and gigabytes. Possibilities exist for 2016 to be a battle of ideas. In addition to the tough questions raised in Los Baños, we can extend lines of inquiry that we must press presidential aspirants to answer during the campaign period.
If Binay, Poe and Roxas, indeed, stand against corruption and put forward a pro-poor agenda, then they have no reason to avoid giving clear answers to these four questions:
First, what is the policy behind the platform? While platforms tell us what is desirable, it is policy that lays out how these plans are made possible. To say we should increase the budget for education is one thing, but to explain how the proportions of the national budget will be reallocated to realize this promise is another. Does the candidate propose to reduce the budget of, for example, debt servicing? Then what happens to the government’s commitment to creditors? Perhaps reduce the proportion of the defense budget? Then what about the promise of AFP modernization to counter external threats? Do we borrow more money to pay for these investments? Then how can we justify these expenses to future generations who will shoulder these debts? A reasonable candidate will rank proposed programs in terms of priorities. It is only fair that voters know which dream holds more weight than the rest.
Second, how will cabinet secretaries be selected? What are the criteria for selection? Who will be in charge of our highways and trains, the transition to K-12, land redistribution and OFWs on death row? No contender for the top political position in the country deserves serious attention if he or she has not thought about who runs the day-to-day aspect of nation building. The President is only as good as his or her appointments.
Third, what are the candidates’ rules on campaign donations? Have they accepted donations from drug lords, land grabbers, smugglers, labor rights violators and illegal gambling operators? Is there a mechanism which can ensure that no donor is powerful enough to define a candidate’s political agenda? How accurate were the State of Contributions and Expenditures that candidates filed in previous elections? What are the candidates’ personal relationships to big business? And, if a candidate claims to be impartial to certain business interests, why should we take his or her word for it?
Finally, how much is a kilo of rice? In Europe, the question “how much is a loaf of bread” is often used as proxy to test the extent to which candidates are in touch with ordinary citizens. If candidates truly know the everyday struggle of Filipino families, then they should know how much a kilo of rice costs. Jamby Madrigal was asked how much a kilo of galunggong six years ago when she was running for president, to which she replied “I am a vegetarian.” It is important to keep these pop quizzes going to test the authenticity of politicians who make bold claims about understanding the plight of the poor.
The Rule Applies to Voters Too
“Back to the good old days” was how Vice President Binay described his experience in UPLB. He expected such behavior, he said, reminding the public that he, too, was once a UP student. For all the Vice President’s faults, he, at least for an hour and a half, could not be faulted for being inattentive to an inquisitive audience.
Answering tough questions, however, is not only the responsibility of candidates. As voters and citizens, we too must subject ourselves to critical questions. How do we distinguish facts from propaganda? What are our rules for engagement when discussing politics with friends whose opinions we find unacceptable? How can we unpack our biases towards particular candidates?
Whether it is in student forums, town hall meetings, televised debates, one-on-one interviews or in social media chatter, the culture of inquiry will challenge candidates to stop hiding behind slogans and spokespersons and protect citizens from falling into the dangerous trap of political apathy, inaction and gullibility.
A thriving culture of critical questioning allows voters, not spin doctors to define the campaign issues of 2016. Asking tough questions and censuring irresponsible answers ensure that the current political spectacle does not deteriorate into a festival of insignificance.