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Duterte 'played it safe' in 1st presidential debate

MANILA, Philippines – A much more behaved and less combative Rodrigo Duterte faced the voting public during the first presidential debate held on Sunday, February 21, in Cagayan de Oro.

In the words of political analyst Aries Arugay, Duterte "played it safe" that night.

Having never run for a national position before, this was Duterte's first time in a nationwide political debate. (WATCH AND READ: Rappler's coverage of the Cagayan de Oro debate)

The Mindanaoan presidential bet known for his cursing and crass jokes uttered just one bad word ("gago" or crazy) during the 2-hour debate, co-organized by GMA-7 and the Philippine Daily Inquirer for the Commission on Elections.

Known as "The Punisher" for being a hardliner against crooks, Duterte did not really punish his rival presidential candidates – something others may have expected him to do given his previous remarks against other bets, particularly Manuel Roxas II.

"I thought that he was not as contentious and aggressive, confrontational, as he was showing before," said Arugay, an associate professor at UP Diliman's Department of Political Science. (READ: Can Rodrigo Duterte win by being himself?)

"He was agreeing for the most part, that's why I thought he played safe. He did not really lift himself from the rest," Arugay added. 

Over the course of the debate, Duterte agreed with statements of Miriam Defensor Santiago on her health and even said he might copy Roxas' fisheries program. 

Duterte on infra: 64% in NCR alone. Mindanao not getting lawful share of taxes #PHVote — Rappler (@rapplerdotcom) February 21, 2016


But Arugay said the debate’s restrictive format may have had something to do with Duterte's safe answers. The questions posed by the hosts did not allow candidates to clash on policies or frameworks. 

It seemed candidates were merely being asked for their "reaction" instead of a rebuttal, added Arugay.

Duterte admitted it was the time limit that made him decide not to give a rebuttal or expound on his platform.

 "Useless eh! I have so many things [to say] but I cannot," he told reporters after the debate.

Clad in a barong and speaking in English for the most part to lessen his chances of uttering bad words, Duterte seemed to be on a mission to convert moderates in the audience to believers.

"I think the audience of that debate was the unconverted. So it seems he was telling his troops, 'I won’t rally the troops now,'" observed Arugay. 

Though Duterte seemed to conform to the debate’s formal setting, he was still the less scripted of the 5.

"I thought he was not as scripted as the others. Some people are saying the others were really good but I said, if you look at their answers, they were very scripted, as if they memorized it," said Arugay, referring to Grace Poe and Mar Roxas, in particular.

'Substantiate more' 

In terms of the content of Duterte's speeches, Arugay said he failed to substantiate on some of his key policy approaches. Case in point: federalism.

Duterte proposed federalism as the country's "last card" for bringing peace to Mindanao. In federalism, the Philippines will be divided into autonomous states with most administrative powers given to local governments. The national government will retain only responsibilities of national interest like national security and foreign affairs. 

So far, Duterte has yet to explain how he intends to go about the shift to a federal government. He has also not addressed the proposal's disadvantages.

"The problem with federalism is that the other regions that are already powerful will be further empowered so the inequality between regions within Mindanao is not addressed. It will probably address the inequality between Mindanao and Manila but not necessarily within [the region]," explained Arugay.

Rappler's news editor Miriam Grace Go also pointed out that Duterte needs to explain how federalism will benefit other regions, not just Mindanao.

"All regions across the Philippines have problems that don't necessarily involve people going to war, and these problems will be addressed too by federalism. You turn off voters in the rest of the country when you talk as if only Mindanao has a pressing problem that a shift in system of government can address," said Go.

Arugay concluded his assessment of Duterte by saying, "I thought that he did not do bad but he did not really use the debate as an opportunity to tell us more what he intends to do."

But because it was Duterte's first national debate, perhaps he was testing the waters and is saving his punches for the next debates, surmised Arugay. 

Tips for next debate 

Duterte can still use the next debates to his advantage. 

Arugay gave these 3 tips: 

In an election with such slim margins between candidates, the next debates can make a winner of whoever outshines the rest. –

Editors' picks per round

Netizens' picks per round

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at