In 2009, at the height of a vastly popular but utterly misguided campaign to catapult the reluctant then-candidate Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III to the presidency, we launched our Platform Plez initiative. In that groundbreaking initiative, we provided a simple and intuitive four-point idiot’s guide to formulating a campaign platform and, specifically for the 2010 presidential election, a comparative matrix of all major candidates’ positions on key national issues.
The sparseness of the content of a document that summarises what presidential candidates essentially stood for at the time is, by itself, remarkable. As we now know, the result of that election was not about who the most qualified candidate was. Much of the campaign “promises” being made back then amounted to nothing more than nebulous motherhood statements so there was no basis for an intelligent vote. There were more than four candidates chasing the coveted seat in Malacanang back in 2010. So there was no convincing mandate to govern. The “winner” in 2010, President BS Aquino, bagged just a little over 40 percent of the vote while former president Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada came in second at about 25 percent.
Why did President BS Aquino win? The Philippines’ foremost political theorists argue that BS Aquino won because his mother, former President Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino and his father, former Senator Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr died. Other theories that attempt to explain Aquino’s baffling victory at the polls in 2010 pale under the robust soundness of that brilliant theory.
It goes without saying then that the political mechanics underlying President BS Aquino’s victory in 2010 will, again, serve as the guiding theoretical framework for election winning strategy in the lead up to the 2016 elections. And, indeed, it is looking like that whole dynamic is well underway. So far, there are no issues at stake in this election — only money (who will steal or not steal it after 2016).
There has also never been any sort of significant structured debate organised for public viewing in any recent presidential campaign period. It is almost as if all presidential candidates are somehow able to rise above their bitter rivalry to collude and reach an agreement to unanimously stay away from issues-based public debate. The Filipino public, for its part, are easily distracted by the tele-dramatic spectacle of mudslinging and slander candidates attack the other with to demand that such a debate be undertaken. The Inquirer, to be fair, did organise one on February 2010 which was snubbed by candidate Joseph Estrada. Estrada cited the Inquirer‘s “bias” against him as his reason for not attending the event.
Even then, there is no transcript or analysis of the results of that debate readily-accesible to the public (consider, for example, this Voter Education site which provides unofficial transcripts of most presidential debates in the U.S.). It’s as if the debate was done, then forgotten. In any case, the issues discussed in that forum very likely simply flew over the heads of most Filipino voters.
Nonetheless there is a growing call for the institutionalisation of election debates in the Philippines. House Bill 5269 authored by Rep. Estrellita ‘Ging’ B. Suansing (1st District, Nueva Ecija) proposes the creation of a “Presidential Debate Commission” to, among its salient provisions, “obligate all Presidential and vice Presidential candidates to participate in the debates and, thus, help the voting population discern who to vote for.”
Under Section (B) of HB 5269, the Commission shall be composed of six (6) members appointed as follows: (a) One (1) member shall be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives; (b) One (1) members shall be appointed by the House Majority Leader, who shall not be a member of the Majority leader’s political party; (c) One (1) member shall be appointed by the President of the Senate; (d) One (1) member shall be appointed by the Majority Leader of the Senate; and (e) two members shall be appointed by the President from among a list of nominees by the two (2) dominant political parties.
“Provided, That the members to be appointed in the preceding items (a), (b), (c), and (d) shall not be members of the same political parties from which the appointees of the President will be selected. Provided, further, that not more than three 93) appointees shall come from any political party. Provided, finally, that the appointees, shall as much as possible come from the different sectors provided in paragraph (b)(2) of this Section.”
Indeed, if a law is enacted to make participation in a state-run debate by all presidential candidates mandatory, it will be a significant step towards professionalising the Office of the President of the Philippines.
At present, the bar for the qualifications needed to become President of the Philippines is set so low that even candidates equipped with only the most rudimentary levels of literacy can become a Philippine president. While most normal Filipinos would ordinarily balk at consulting an unqualified physician on matters of personal health, they would, on the other hand, see no problem with entrusting their futures on the ignoramuses they routinely elect to critical government offices.
If Filipinos are serious about their aspiration to become a truly modern and intelligent democracy, then they should see to it that serious measures are put in place to assure them that ideas rather than people are the primary currency in the nation’s political discourse.
Until then, the Philippines will be no more than an embarrassing perversion of democratic governance.
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