MANILA, Philippines – Rappler’s panel of adjudicators gave the second presidential debates held in Cebu City to independent presidential candidate Grace Poe on Sunday, March 20.
“I don’t know if the Supreme Court decision allowing her to run and declaring her eligible to run gave her a confidence boost,” said World Universities Debating Championships Finals adjudicator and bar topnotcher Joan de De Venecia, who now teaches at the University of the Philippines College of Law.
“The Grace Poe that I saw today was confident and acted like a front runner.” De Venecia described Poe as “on point and aggressive.”
The panel, commenting live from Manila, also included former UP Diliman Debate Society team captain Nicole Curato, who is now a research fellow at the Center for Deliberative Democracy in Canberra and is one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men in the field of sociology. Completing the panel is two-time Asian Best Speaker and Asian Debate Grand Champion Glenn Tuazon, who is now an associate at Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & de Los Santos.
Candidates were judged according to the traditional debate standards of matter (what the speaker knows – the arguments and supporting evidence), manner (how the speaker presents arguments and engages with opponents) and method (the logic and structure of the speeches).
The second presidential debate was organized by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and aired live on TV5, the television partner of Comelec for this debate.
The rules for round one allowed panelists, mostly journalists, to ask questions directly to specific candidates who were allowed two minutes to respond. Other candidates were allowed 30 seconds to rebuttal, with moderator Luchi Cruz-Valdez cutting off tangential exchanges and returning speakers to issues at hand. Althought TV5 broke down the first round into three television segments, Rappler’s adjudicators gave the entire round to Senator Grace Poe.
Beside the point
Curato said the first segment was an “excellent start from TV5 and Philippine Star,” with well-framed questions that “brought up where people stand,” beginning with veteran journalist Ed Lingao’s question on the Freedom of Information Bill.
In spite of discussions on climate change and the Aquino legacy, all 3 adjudications agreed the first salvo was monopolized by a heated exchange between Poe and Vice President Jejomar Binay. After a question on corruption charges against Binay’s son, Poe raised Binay’s unwillingness to appear before the Senate to answer his own corruption charges. Binay responded that Poe was not “a true” Filipino, given she had abjured her citizenship by swearing allegiance to the United States. (READ: Poe, Binay face off on rule of law, corruption, citizenship)
The back and forth included references to thievery and disloyalty, as well as an interrupted reading of the American oath of allegiance.
It was not the only off-tangent exchange in the debate. Tuazon compared them to squabbles between children – “It’s like someone saying, ‘You’re ugly,’ ‘No, you’re uglier,’” – adding that “the tangential issues detracted from discussions on energy, power and legislation.”
De Venecia said the first segment had Roxas “on the defensive.”
Poe and Binay, she said, succeeded the most in “making their voices heard.”
The clash in the first segment, said Curato, boiled down to how Poe framed the question of what makes a good Filipino. Should Filipinos choose a candidate “who stayed in the country to steal,” or a Filipino “who left the country to lead a decent life?”
Adjudicators gave the round to Poe, with Tuazon saying Poe “came off sharp,” appealing both “on the facts of the issue and on matters of police.” The decision, however, was a close one, faulting the neophyte senator for her answers on the coco levy issue.
“I think she was boxed into a corner and she didn’t really respond,” De Venecia said. “There was an intention to evade.”
Roxas the bullied
“We expected the candidates to gang up on VP Binay,” said Tuazon, “but you see the other candidates ganging up on Secretary Roxas.”
Roxas, said Tuazon, was at a definite disadvantage, and was “cracking under pressure.”
“It’s always an unenviable position in a debate when you’re part of the current administration,” said Tuazon. “You cannot throw under the bus what your administration is doing but you also want to prove you can do something more, so that’s the delicate balance.”
Poe led the attack against Roxas, this time on his performance on rehabilitation in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda.
Curato described Poe’s debate style as aggressive, engaging, and elegant. Poe, said Curato, managed to wrest control of the debate from the other candidates. Her framing of her arguments was “fact-driven.”
“I think Mayor Duterte, Vice President Binay and Senator Poe had a united strategy on one front,” said De Venecia. “I don’t know whether conscious or united or they talked about it, but all three of them were really determined to hit Tuwid na Daan.“
Binay called out Roxas’ failure to liquidate items to the Commission on Audit. Poe accused the Liberal Party of selective justice when holding corrupt allies accountable. Duterte pointed to Roxas’ own inadequacy during the Yolanda rehabilitation, as well as the situation inside prisons that Roxas said was not his responsibility.
In spite of this, Tuazon said Roxas, although defensive, came in stronger after a weak opening. “Sound bites were clear, and he defended himself quite aggressively.”
Binay’s missed opportunities
De Venecia said that in some segments, Binay followed a close second to Poe, at least in terms of policy. “He came in swinging on a lot of issues and I thought that he actually explained a lot more on tax reform and infrastructure.”
“He showed quick thinking, and his gut reaction to the barbs thrown at him were more on point than the first debate,” De Venecia said. She added that “his style of speaking is not as persuasive as the others, being tentative at times.”
He kept his language “as simple as possible, on purpose,” said Tuazon.
“He has a tendency to go on off-tangent attacks, such as the sudden attack on Grace Poe’s citizenship when he was being asked about the corruption allegations”
“He couldn’t build the Binay narrative and offered nothing very substantial,” Curato said. “He attacked and deflected, without demonstrating his own competence and vision.”
Binay, said Curato, was underwhelming, particularly for an activist and human rights lawyer who sells himself as a visionary.
“Beyond the grand gesture of signing waivers,” both Curato and De Venecia agreed that Binay missed an opportunity to refute the corruption charges against him.
De Venecia said it “may be part of his continuing strategy to ‘take the issue to courts as the proper forum.'”
Duterte shoots from the hip
Duterte’s contributions to the debate, though largely greeted by laughter and cheers, were limited to sporadic interruptions that may not have been substantive, but allowed him to reangle the debate.
“If it’s deliberate,” said Curato, “I think to a certain extent it was very clever, it didn’t only give spice to the debate but it gave him some power to frame the debate where he wants it to go.”
De Venecia said that Duterte was largely disengaged from the debate, putting himself above the fray when it came to policy discussions.
What was interesting, said Curato, was that “no one is willing to ask questions of Mayor Duterte.”
It could have been a strategy, said De Venecia, or it’s possible that “they’re really afraid to take on Mayor Duterte.”
“Even some of the candidates or most of the candidates are afraid to cross him,” said Tuazon. “When Davao Mayor Duterte said, ‘If you’re not afraid to kill, you shouldn’t be president,’ I thought that would have invited more questions from the candidates.”
Curato did acknowledge the only rebuttal to Duterte – “I think the best part was when Mar Roxas said, ‘This is the Duterte brand of justice, shooting from the hip.'”
The second round paired candidates and allowed them to ask each other questions. De Venecia and Tuazon gave the debate to Poe, with Curato dissenting.
Poe began her questioning by laying out the context of Roxas’ role within the Aquino administration. She said he was the interior secretary tasked with handling the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda and the siege of Zamboanga. She said he was the DOTC secretary who made the decision to change the maintenance provider handling the metro’s railways.
“My question, secretary – isn’t this the reason why you were not trusted by the president with knowledge of the Mamasapano operation and he chose instead to trust another officer like General Purisima?”
Tuazon called the question “a bit sneaky,” and said it was a pointed question that assumed the premise. “The question is like this – ‘These are your failures, Secretary Roxas, now are these failures the reason why President Aquino doesn’t trust you.’ So she presumes that President Aquino doesn’t trust Secretary Roxas. You could see that he was scrambling for answers there.”
De Venecia also applauded the question. “She actually said, you’re incompetent, and the president doesn’t trust you, which aren’t really questions but accusations. I don’t actually see a way to get out of that.”
Curato agreed that the question was leading and that Roxas failed to answer, but disagreed the exchange made Poe the best speaker for the round.
“I didn’t really like the way Senator Poe framed that question, precisely for that reason. I think it was sneaky. I think it was borderline unethical.”
She believed the best question came from Roxas, whose question was to Binay.
Duterte, on his part, asked Poe about long-running concerns over ownership of the Spratlys. (READ: Duterte tests Poe: What would you do if China attacked?)
“On the Spratlys, what would happen if one night, someone tells you that two of our coast guard ships have been bombed? What would be the first three steps that you’ll do?”
Poe gave a lengthy answer bemoaning the state of the country’s readiness to face China, and said as president, she would make sure soldiers are prepared, funds are saved for surface-to-air missiles, adding that she was willing to “knock on every country’s door” to make sure agreements are signed.
Duterte again asked the question – what will your immediate steps be if China bombs our ships?
“I was not satisfied with her answer with regards to the Spratlys,” De Venecia said. “She said she’s going to wake up and face the day. I thought that kind of exposed a little bit what Duterte was trying to show was that she’s not ready to be president.”
All adjudicators felt Binay’s refusal to ask Duterte a question knocked him out of running for best speaker. (READ: Binay-Duterte ‘bromance’ at 2nd presidential debate)
“Strictly in a debate, if you skip a speech, you get a zero,” Tuazon said. “I think it’s a pattern we’ve seen throughout this debate, no one wants to take on Mayor Duterte, they don’t think of it as strategic at all.
The panel of adjudicators gave the debate to Poe – unanimously on the first round, with a dissent from Curato on the second.
“On matter, she had the statistics down pat, she came prepared,” said Tuazon. “The manner came across as surprising, to say the least. She was more pointed in this debate than in the first debate. Method-wise, I think she split her strategy well, round one she was showing what she knew, round two she was showing the weakness of the other candidates what she wanted to know, and in the closing she talked about what she could deliver to Cebu, to Iloilo, or to the rest of Visayas.”
“I thought she was very, very sneaky but effective,” said De Venecia. She pointed out Poe’s “on point” use of facts and figures. De Venecia also emphasized Poe’s ability to answer the question on FOI by laying the blame on the government’s inability to act on it as a priority – essentially saying the administration “was engaged in doublespeak.”
De Venecia, however, made note of her dissatisfaction with Poe’s answers on the coco levy and the Spratlys.
Curato agreed with the final decision, in spite of her dissent on the second round. Poe, she said, “can be equally assertive and aggressive but also data driven.”
Curato’s biggest disappointment – shared by all the panelists – was the unwillingness of any candidate to back the legalization of divorce.
No candidate raised their hands when asked if they supported divorce. (READ: Cebu presidential debate: All candidates against divorce)
Curato said the disappointment was greater with Poe. Divorce is a woman’s issue, Curato said, and her disappointment was not because Poe was a woman and failed to support the bill, but because she was a candidate using the narrative of a woman and a mother, yet too afraid to stand up for women.
If Poe were willing to support the death penalty for heinous crimes, Curato said, “then why can’t you put your hand up to divorce with reservations?”
De Venecia shared the same disappointment, adding that Duterte had been previously open-minded about rights for same sex couples. “I always assumed that divorce would be more acceptable to us than same-sex marriage.”
Curato, asked what the rejection of divorce implied, was blunt.
“They’re all scared.”
“It’s a very careful gesture,” said Tuazon, “You don’t want to alienate the Catholic vote.”
The value of debate
A presidential debate, said Curato, is a litmus test that offers a preview of the next commander in chief.
“Temperament is very important,” said De Venecia, “as well as their views of fairness and their decisiveness when it comes to making tough choices.”
A debate, said Tuazon, also demonstrates how a candidate responds to pressure. “If you can get caught off guard by questions, it shows how you respond to crisis.” It is not the only determinant, he said, but it is certainly indicative of a candidate’s tendencies.
The adjudicators were careful to explain that their standards may differ wildly from other people watching the same debate.
“We were looking at the three Ms, matter, manner, method,” said Tuazon. That judgment may not apply to Philippine politics, he said, and held up Duterte as an example, whom social media crowned as the debate’s winner.
“We are judging this from a debater’s perspective, but in the greater scheme of things, everyone else can act from a different perspective.”
Tuazon explained that Duterte was not debating if held up to the traditional standards of debate.
“He says, ‘I’m not here to debate about policy, if the other candidates have a good policy, I can adopt it and implement it better,'” Tuazon said. “That’s not going to work in a regular debate, you can’t start conceding everything and say, ‘I’ll just do better.’ His selling point is – ‘I have the political will, I have the support, I can get things done in three to six months, and if you give me the keys to the country I will pull it off’ – is basically unjudgeable in a normal oratorical contest.”
De Venecia, who before the debate said she had hoped for more substance in the arguments, said she was very happy with the debate, and attributed the success of the event to the questions that came from the panel.
“FOI, coco levy, all timely issues that are very important. When you have good questions, you allow candidates to shine or not shine. If you have a good question, you are promised a good debate. At times it got rowdy, but I like the chaos. I like the noise.” – Rappler.com(Editor’s note: All languages have been translated to English)