Debating to get to Malacañang: Effective or not?

ariel nepomuceno_1THE big viewership, together with the huge, enthusiastic interest of the public in the performance of the candidates in the Comelec-sponsored presidential debates on February 21 in Cagayan de Oro, reinvigorated a discussion on the issue of whether the debates can make a real difference in the probability of success of each aspirant to capture Malacañang.

Political analysts, campaign strategists, communication experts and all of those involved in the election business still believe that while the debates will not directly guarantee victory at the polls, their real value lies in the quality of public discourse and the resulting awareness of voters about the candidates and what they stand for.

Value of debates

Essentially, the debates give you a better perspective about the candidate. They facilitate an expedited “getting to know you” session. Also, the voters make both an informed and enlightened choice when they troop to the polls. They also sift the patch because they clarify who can truly withstand the fierce scrutiny of the citizenry, own their advocacies and trumpet the same. The fact that these debates are televised and recorded can also make the candidates more accountable for the commitments they promised before they got elected.

Media reruns and replays will make one realize the unfulfilled promises that the duly elected officials made while they were in the heat of the campaign. Sometimes, the electorate gets a glimpse at the character of the aspirants. The observant and discerning ones can decipher when a candidate is twisting or spinning well-known facts to cloud an issue detrimental to his/her bid or the way he/she uses words or exhibits behavior that is crass, indecent or rude to a fellow candidate. All these give away one’s values.

But what is really crucial in these debates is the focus on platforms and programs of action. It would greatly contribute to this country’s political maturity and education if the viewers realize how the candidates plan to concretely address issues that confront the nation—like poverty alleviation, national security and public order, or foreign policy. This can possibly provide the shift from personality- or popularity-driven politics to one that is principles- and platform-based.

On the practical level, those who fund the electoral campaigns of these candidates are monitoring the performance of the latter in the debates. In the US, for instance, debates often shape where money will flow. The political aristocracy tends to support candidacies of those who inspire confidence, display statesmanship, and can comfortably hug the world stage and eloquently articulate the country’s policy on matters of governance. No one wants a President who cannot speak on behalf of a sovereign nation.

The February 21 debates highlighted not only the public-speaking skills of the presidential wannabes, but somehow showed their particular advocacies, though not in a very thorough and deep manner. This is probably due to the format, time limit and complex nature of the range of issues that they were supposed to explain to the public. One sorely misses the potential for more interactive exchanges between the candidates because of the sheer lack of time.

Issues, concerns and demeanor of candidates

The Cagayan de Oro debates centered on poverty, charter change, peace and order, and agriculture. These are extremely important issues, and the public has the right to fully know how Secretary Manuel A. Roxas II, Sen. Grace Poe, Vice President Jejomar C. Binay, Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte and Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago intend to provide solutions and not just short, curt and severely controlled remarks because of limitations in the methodology or procedure of the debate process.

All in all, it was refreshing seeing a calm and nonaggressive Duterte, who even supported some of the positions taken by his fellow candidates. Predictably, he was very strong on peace and order, drugs and the Mindanao problem. Poe showed her good debating skills and spoke very confidently, delivering and summarizing her ideas in well-crafted and thought of statements. Roxas was impressive in his facts and data. He knew his numbers, the performance statistics of the current administration, and was very forthright and direct when it comes to the experience and competence of his rivals. Binay was unexpectedly low key and quiet, nonaggressive but his “masa appeal” is obviously still there. Finally, Santiago, known to be the seasoned orator, remained feisty in her attacks of the other aspirants’ empty and undelivered promises.

Go on with public debates

IN sum, the debates were clearly an opening salvo for the voters to discern and observe. There are many improvements and changes that need to be done in order for these public discussions to be more meaningful and substantive. The Commission on Elections must seize the opportunity to make it a true forum that will further a deeper and more robust exchange of ideas between the candidates. The dates of the debates must also be reviewed, so that they can still have an effect on how voters make their choices.

There is time for a change of mind in favor of those who truly deserve the mandate.


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