#AnimatED: Let’s get serious with presidential debates

The debates should not be used to perpetuate the uneven structure of Philippine society

The first presidential debate for the May 2016 elections took place in Cagayan de Oro Sunday, February 21. 

Mar Roxas went on the offensive, hitting his rivals, especially Senator Grace Poe, while Rodrigo Duterte and Miriam Defensor-Santiago engaged in a love fest. Poe seized her supposed inexperience to say the country needed fresh perspective from a leader. Binay was asked to explain his wealth and the two faces of Makati.

Some observers said that what happened on Sunday was not a debate but “speed dating.” Others claimed that there were too many commercials in between, to the detriment of quality time that should have been spent subjecting the candidates to tough questions and allowing them to answer beyond motherhood statements. (WATCH AND READ: Rappler’s coverage of the Cagayan de Oro debate)

Well, two more are coming up: on March 20 in Cebu and April 24 in Southern or Central Luzon. 

The subjects to be covered in the next debates include: disaster preparedness, health care, education, fighting corruption, traffic and public transportation, electoral and political reforms, foreign policy, tax reform and national defense.

It’s about time we see the candidates together on stage, responding to sharp questions and interacting with one another – after such a long drought. The last debate organized by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) was more than 2 decades ago, in 1992. 

In the 2004 and 2010 elections, some media organizations assembled debates but not all of the candidates showed up. Lacking the imprimatur of the Comelec, they did not feel obliged to take part. 

It’s also about the lack of demand for public scrutiny of the candidates. We seem to settle for rehearsed speeches, prepared statements and media interviews.

The debates are different in that they demand more from the candidates. How well they answer questions given the limited time, how they react to tirades of their rivals, how they handle a clash of views: all these will emerge in the debates.

Of course, the truthfulness of their answers and the accuracy of their statements are primordial.

Apart from the quality of their responses, body language and facial expressions can be revealing. Will they keep their cool when fending off attacks? Will they stay confident? Or will they allow their tempers to flare? 

These are all key moments when voters can assess the candidates’ substance—in policy and politics – and his or her character.

We hope the debates will nudge us to veer away from name recall and go beyond the surface. They can, indeed, change a campaign and be a vital factor in making our choices.

As Nick Rowley, an academic wrote, “In the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen, [debates] allow us to view our prospective emperors and assess the thread of their clothes.”

Generally, debates should be positive contributions to our young and raucous democracy. They are widely accessible and are carried live by various media platforms – TV, radio, and online. 

Rappler has aired its concern, though, about the Comelec chairman’s decision to grant exclusive broadcasting and livestreaming rights to select media organizations, in effect limiting access to information and discriminating against others. We have elevated this, a press-freedom issue, to the Supreme Court.

Let’s get serious with presidential debates not only as game-changers in the campaign but as a boost to our democracy, an equalizer. These should not be used to perpetuate the uneven structure of Philippine society. – Rappler.com