IN the contest for the second-highest position in the country, the occupant of which could end up merely as a spare tire, the candidates and their supporters appeared more raucous and belligerent than those engaged in the elections themselves.
The six-cornered vice-presidential debate before a jam-packed gallery at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) pavilion kicked off smoothly on Sunday, but quickly heated up like the Pacquiao-Bradley match five hours earlier, when candidates were asked about their stand on corruption.
At the live TV debate sponsored by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), CNN Philippines, Kapisanan ng mga Broadkaster ng Pilipinas, UST and the BusinessMirror, the contenders stood firm in their positions on key issues, despite strong challenges from their opponents. Mudslinging became the game as the vice-presidential candidates tried to outdo each other and boost their chances of winning to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Debate moderator Pia Hontiveros of CNN Philippines quipped on whether the third installment of Pacquiao vs. Bradley was an undercard to the Marcos vs. Cayetano word war that developed in the heated debate.
The obvious target at the homestretch toward Election Day was Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has consistently ranked in a statistical tie for the top spot in the most credible electoral surveys.
Even before the start of the vice-presidential debate, militant workers braved the 30°Celsius heat and picketed the España gate of the UST. They were met by equally passionate Marcos loyalists bearing placards containing responses to allegations of corruption and human-rights violations that the heir of the late dictator faced during the debate.
“What does the son have to do with it?” asked one of the Marcos loyalists in response to militants’ chants against the possible return of another Marcos in Malacañang.
In response to the first question on how to address corruption, Marcos claimed that in his 27 years of service, he had never been linked to corruption, and drew boos from the audience. His supporters responded with an even louder chant of “BBM,” which stands for “Bongbong Marcos,” to drown the dissent. “Bongbong” is the nickname of the late President’s son.
It was the debate on corruption that took much of the nearly three-hour debate.
Sen. Francis G. Escudero pressed for the immediate passage of the Freedom of Information bill as a deterrent and even suggested a ban on pockets in uniforms of Bureau of Customs personnel.
For his part, Sen. Gregorio B. Honasan II acknowledged that graft and corruption remains a serious issue that can be addressed by amending the existing codes governing appropriation and disbursement of public funds to plug loopholes.
Acknowledging the “corrosive influence” of graft and corruption, Marcos cautioned that reform measures would only be effective if “implemented fairly and do not involve politics.”
Rep. Leni Robredo hammered on “accountability, transparency and people’s participation in governance” as deterrent to corruption. Sen. Antonio F. Trillanes IV suggested raising government salaries to discourage corruption.
Sen. Alan S. Cayetano, in turn, debunked Marcos’s claim linking him to corruption issues. Cayetano insisted that no big businessman was supporting his candidacy.
Marcos wondered why Cayetano was raising corruption issues against him only now and challenged Cayetano to produce proof, saying the Aquino administration would have already used this and filed cases against him if such evidence exists.
When Cayetano pressed on that the evidence includes the P4-billion alleged ill-gotten wealth recovered by the government, Marcos challenged him to produce proof, adding that he is willing to face Cayetano in court.
Marcos, in turn, downplayed Cayetano’s insistence on implicating the Marcoses in nonpayment of liabilities over human-rights abuses committed during the martial-law regime, saying the settlement of claims is now between the victims and the government.
Besides corruption, a host of economic issues was also discussed at length by the candidates, notably on traffic and mobility, which curtail productivity; the need and use of taxes; using judicial reforms to encourage investors; and boosting Internet speeds.
Most of the candidates said the next administration needs to work double-time to catch up with the backlog on infrastructure needed to improve mobility of goods and people.
Replying to a question from BusinessMirror columnist John Mangun about what they will do to improve provincial transportation, Marcos cited the need to bring the people out of congested urban areas while infrastructure is beng improved.
Marcos also pitched the completion of north rail and south rail systems, noting how rail systems have been proven, time and again, to be the cheapest way to move passengers and cargo.
On the general question of improving traffic, Honasan said no less than a systematic and holistic planning will do. While the infrastructure is being built and installed, he said more trees should be planted and more manpower harnessed for the simultaneous programs.
Marcos said he wants to both reduce the number of vehicles but must improve the public-transport system and finish all bypass roads.
Pointing out that 70 percent of the population are commuters, Robredo also noted that 13 percent of roads are used by buses; the rest, private cars.
Meanwhile, Trillanes suggested the transfer of government centers to Pampanga and Nueva Ecija, adding that there is a need for rural-development plans to develop provinces.
In the National Capital Region, some candidates said the government can discourage the culture of bringing cars by creating mass-transport systems, such as those found in Hong Kong and Singapore.