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Presidential debates: Why bother?

PHILIPPINE social media and pundits have followed the debates between presidential candidates in the US with great anticipation. It is true that the Americans do know how to put on a television show that allows candidates the opportunity to present their ideas to the voting public.

There is always a sense of confrontation between the candidates as they spar to offer themselves as the persons who should be given the power. The media have the opportunity to push the candidates to go beyond the superficial and try to get the specific substance behind the visions.

Perhaps, the most important takeaway that the public receives from the debates is to see the candidates in situations that are unscripted and uncontrolled. In the presidential debates of the 2012 US election, one candidate had a “brain freeze.” Part of his platform was the elimination of three Federal government departments, but when asked about that during the debate, he was able to name only two, simply forgetting the other one.

Losing your train of thought during a debate is not the way to win voter confidence.

In 1988 the question was asked, would the candidate favor the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered. The answer was, “No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” While in one sense, this showed the candidate’s commitment to his position; the brief answer also showed a lack of sensitivity to those who might have suffered a similar  fate. Voters were also bothered by the candidate not mentioning anything about justice for crime victims. Another presidential candidate talked of his experience seeing a UFO. He lost perhaps, because the aliens were not registered to vote. We can remember attending a candidate forum—which was almost a debate—for the 1992 presidential election. The candidates were all asked what was the most important improvement that was needed in the government.

One candidate said that the professionalism, political independence and quality of the government bureaucracy in all departments were vital, as the heads were all political appointees. Government departments were only as good as the real people doing the department’s work. Another said that the Department of Science and Technology was the most important government department in order to prepare the Philippines for the next century.

With issues now, such as Internet connectivity and various government departments’ inability to deliver transportation and infrastructure projects, those two answers—from losing candidates—may have been the best look into the country’s future.

Presidential debates could afford voters an important look at the candidates, and these may even help shape the coming election’s outcome. But this will only happen if all debate participants—the candidates, the media and the public—are genuinely interested in seeking answers to the issues that the Philippines faces.

Otherwise, the debates will be nothing more than an episode of “Pilipinas Got Talent—President’s Edition.”

Image credits: Jimbo Albano

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