Why can’t Philippine elections be about issues rather than personalities?

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.

philippine_debateThe 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.

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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.

11 Replies to “Why can’t Philippine elections be about issues rather than personalities?”

  1. Ever listen to Led Zeppelin II’s “What is and what should never be” if so, then you’ll have the answer to your question posed in the title of this essay. If not give it a listen here:

    Worth every second.

    @ Benigno,If you read my reply to a comment in the article you published with the ‘battleships’ about ‘Victimhood, start advertising ‘BIT-SPARK’ and help save those hard working Filipino maids in Hong Kong buckets of CA$H,and make some for yourself too! (Why not?). There is no longer the need for the swindling middlemen, the scumbag ‘Bankster’s’.
    Contact Simon Dixon (I got his name wrong ,its not Davies,its Dixon) and his firm is called ‘Bank to the Future’ here:


    He is a Londoner now based in Hong Kong and he is getting what I spoke about done.It is happening now,these maids no longer have to be robbed sending money home.

  2. Old time Texas Politicians had a saying “If you can’t Blind Them With Brilliance, then Baffle Them With Bulls**t”. It worked in Texas, seems to work well in Philippines.
    The issues never change (Poverty, Corruption, Dynasties)

  3. The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.

    To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.

    To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

    1. I did read an article once about how the people best suited for promotion to management positions are those who don’t want to be managers.

  4. How can a mentally retarded candidate like Aquino perform in a debate? What I see, Binay cannot also perform good , in any debate …much more Erap Estrada.

    Filipino voters have the Power to lead where the ISSUES of the election would be…

    Today, it is the Candidates, who are leading , where the Issues are…

    So, we are in : digging dirts on political opponents; mudslinging; character assasination; political zarzuelas;etc…

    No platforms; no vision/plaaning to solve our countrys’ problems; no plans on how they will rule; etc…

    So, after they win ; after the political zarzuelas…back to the same business of thievery; incompetence; more political zarzuelas; etc…

  5. Yes! Ito lagi laman ng balita. Philippine news full of politicians names and their grandstanding. Unang ipinapasok sa isip ng tao ang kung sino ang laman ng issue at bakit siya pinag-uusapan. Kaawa-awang mga Pilipino. Hirap na nga mag-isip pinapaliit pa lalo ang kukote.

    Like for example, “Marcos rejected BBL”. I’ve nothing against Sen. Bongbong no, magaling siya. But see if the news headline goes like “BBL cannot pass in it’s present form” or something like that then people will first think “Why? Anong nangyari? Bakit hindi na papasa?” or “This is interesting. What could this possibly mean?” they would first want to know the details of the issue. ‘Pag sinabi mong “Marcos rejected BBL” the focus is more on what Marcos did or achieved.

    Another example is ‘yang ibinabalita ng Inquirer at Philippine Star. Ultimo pagtanggap ng pangulo ng standing ovation sa Japan big news sa kanila. And that’s exactly the point of their article, that PNoy received a standing ovation. Newsworthy ba talaga iyon? Nakatulong ba iyon sa mga Filipino? Hindi ba ang mga journalist ay may responsibilidad na maghatid ng importante at kapaki-pakinabang na balita sa mga tao? O bakit gano’n ang ibinabalita nila? Lumiliit ang tingin ko sa mga taong ‘to na dapat mas malawak ang pang-unawa at kaalaman. Nakakaimbyerna talaga.

  6. Why? Because either voters don’t understand what platform is or they thought that presidential election is just like tele-drama; pick the most “mabait”, qualified or not. But then again, even if one candidate has the best platform, are the people smart enough to discern whats feasible and what’s not? Will the people hold the the president accountable of his/her platform after election? Is there really one candidate that can lift up Philippines and do the mission impossible under our type of government?

    1. It is up to those who can discern the “Motives” of Candidates, among the bloggers, who will explain it to those who cannot understand.

      This is the reason, we are all blogging…to reach and touch every reader…

  7. ?Why can’t Philippine elections be about issues rather than personalities? …a conundrum! We are dealing with a voting public dominated by people who are either mediocre, ignorant, or mendicant; although precisely, the very reason why issues should be front and center. Issues could educate the gullible, and educated, an impressionable and pliant crowd might yield better results come election day. There have been proposals that since educating this kind of voters is an almost impossible task, only voters who have paid their taxes (or via other forms of selection, or culling) should be allowed to vote. These have however been deemed discriminatory, so they never prospered beyond just an idea. Going back to the two party system might be the better solution — issues have a better chance of being aired in such a system.

    But, that is just the first layer of the problem. Looking deeper, we see apathy, indifference, and complacency on one hand; on the other, the forces in the establishment that wants to maintain the status quo. People no longer see the relevance of government in their lives. They seat contented in their Pinoy Pride, oblivious to a rotting surrounding brought about by toxic politics — but politics of course is not their cup of tea, even if it is one of the causes for their lousy predicament.. ……Their experiment on one who had empathy for the poor resulted in a failed leadership even if he had charisma and knew how to entertain. They swung to the other side of a pendulum and tried an academic and economist, but were betrayed by her greediness. (Well, what did they expect? Self-interest is the first and basic assumption that undergirds all the models and theories of Economics 101?) Betrayed, they allowed their emotion to prevail and tried an anti-academic and amateur, hoping he would be harmless, but now see the untold disaster brought about by his hypocrisy and obduracy, so unexpected from a traditional non-performer and so glossed over by narcissistic and hollow propagandas. So, what else to experiment on?

    Being presented to them today are: (a) a try again at one connected with the entertainment industry since the first experiment was cut short, even if the entity being presented today is so inexperienced; (b) a try at a street smart lawyer who is suspected to be very, very corrupt since it appears that it is the corrupt ones that know the system and thus are the ones that are competent and who perform and deliver; and (c) a try at an investment banker who might show his full potential if untethered by an amateurish boss even if so far said has been a pathetically bungling bureaucrat. Of course, we are being made to understand that we could not have other choices as the ones holding the political war chests say that is the choice.

    A presidentiable will need the eye-popping amount of Php8 billion just to pay and have enough poll watchers during election day, not to mention that prior to that, the several billions more needed for TV placements, campaign sorties and paraphernalia, as well as the not so secretive buying of votes. Of course, this is the unsaid justification why candidate (b) above (to be clear is Binay) HAD to be corrupt; how else could he raise the billions to support his ambition? (Corrupting in the process amazingly his very own children instead of shielding them morally !!!) To be sure, this is a lousy justification for he has thousands of volunteers coming from his die-hards in the APO fraternity and the Boy’s Scouts (as Hitler used the enthusiasm of the Boy’s Scouts as a vehicle in his propaganda.)

    Which makes us stop and ask: if a candidate had a compelling idea and has clear path related to issues, does he really need all these money and poll watchers? Is it possible to imagine citizens rallying behind an idea and volunteering themselves as poll watchers just to protect the idea if it is that compelling? Unfortunately, nobody believe such a situation could arise. The ruling party has been frantic themselves building their war chest. They strengthened the quota system, i.e., each appointed position has to deliver every month a fixed amount to the chest, among other things, or the position is declared vacant. If they have not done anything for the country, it is because they have been perfecting the art of patronage politics; just dig deeper into the rationale behind PDAF, DAP and Malampaya.

    Of course, there is always the possibility of a lone wolf challenging the system. He has an idea and believes that he sees a path on how to solve the problems. Already, this is being proven by a mayor from the south. He says he has a platform of government. But, how many have read his platform and given it a thought. No, very few have bothered to read, otherwise there would already be a debate on the many issues he has raised. Thus, he is exasperated and finally admits that he too needs money as all the other candidates, and probably more money than others since he has to overcome the many who have reduced his identity to that with the “death squad”. His is a case worth watching if only to see if there is any sign of maturity in voters. For sure, he is not the first lone wolf that tried. In the past, there have been candidates who seem to have a cause worth fighting for. But, a good many of them turned out to be persons who just knew how to game the election process — they have managed to make millions of profit out of political contributions and donations.

    How we have come to such an electoral system can be said to be circumstantial. With probably the best of intentions, they recasted the constitution to correct the errors of the past. They forgot to take into considerations that with Pinoys, the moment you give them enough freedom, they will abuse it. Thus, a system was created without the expected order, spawning a culture of impunity, and a culture that in turn perpetuates the system. So the problem may be cultural, but it is also structural. To stop the vicious circle, we may have to tamper with it structurally as that may be more feasible than attacking it now from the cultural end.. That means another constitutional change.
    The question is: will the oligarchs, or the powers that be, agree to a change that will benefit the populace, or will they use the occasion to again benefit the elite the more? Please bear in mind that the real corruptions are happening in high places where behest loans, currency manipulation, the exploitation of import and other licensing schemes, technical smuggling, government coddling of favored companies and kamag-anaks, and the selling out of the country through treaties and agreements with foreigners have been the normal day-to-day activities. The powers that be love what is going on. They want to see up front the personalities they will be dealing with and manipulate. They don’t want characters they can’t handle.

    But, the biggest problem is that the populace no longer know, perceive, or imagine what the office of the president is. They think it has a job description similar to a baranggay captain. Erap made it an undignified position, a place where his shady friends can get drunk with Blue Labels to their hearts’ content. Gloria made it the secret room for wheeling and dealing mafia style. PNoy made it into his hiding place for his wet dreams and narcissistic illusions; his KKK and school council pampering all his whims in order to go circle around him and blind him of their respective and personal greed.

    So, how can we even start talking of issues when we no longer have an agreement on what is the job description of the CEO of the country. We will not even know what to demand of him/her if that is the case … for we will just be squabbling first on what a CEO or a Statesman should be, which in turn normally deteriorate into talks on personality.

    How unfortunate and sad, really.

    1. Your efforts is not in vain for many understand what underlies our national malady as shown by the stupidity that surfaced during the 2010 election voting for the scion of hero and heroine Cory and Ninoy Aquino. It is the height of emotionalism which has no place in the business of governance! So do not tire sharing your insights on what our problems are and their solutions! The Force is with you!

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