Published on February 23, 2016.
I wanted to devote today’s column to the astonishing handpicked hypocrisy of the Rappler lawsuit against Commission on Elections Chair Andy Bautista, but perhaps another day or another format. For now I wish to write about some of the sidelights I witnessed at the first presidential debate last Sunday in Cagayan de Oro.
Let me start at the beginning, and with a confession: When the program started, I was overcome by excitement. (I don’t think I am betraying confidences if I say that my seat mate in the front row, Comelec director James Jimenez, was uttering his “Oh, wows,” too.) The fact that all five presidential candidates were in attendance, standing at their No Bio, No Boto lecterns and ready to make the best case for themselves, inside a campus in my hometown and before a live TV and online audience, struck me as a small but significant victory for our imperfect democracy.
A top political strategist advising one of the presidential candidates described the series of Comelec debates (the next one is on March 20 in Cebu, the third on April 24 in Dagupan) as a “game changer.”
* * *
I had the chance to pay a call on each of the candidates before the start of the debate. A few sidelights which might reveal something of their character:
Vice President Jojo Binay. The survey front-runner took my compliment, about being the only candidate who took the “podium check” opportunity seriously, in stride. He said he was used as a local executive to visualizing outcomes, and the chance to go to the Capitol University theater before the debate and test the microphones would help him visualize the course of the debate beforehand. I teased him about visualizing a particular scene: sitting in the presidential palace signing his first executive order, and he laughed, and then said in Filipino, with a smile: “I am visualizing how many times you will criticize me when I’m in Malacañang.”
Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago. I had criticized the senator before, so I was uncertain about the reception. But she was very gracious. She did not look tired, but she did sound weak. Her first question for me, however, showed her sharp, inquisitive mind at work: “What exactly is a cohost, Mr. Nery?” She had obviously read the preparatory documents and seen the publicity material. I explained that it was the Comelec’s own tweaking of the dual-moderator format it had preselected for the Mindanao debate, to allow the Inquirer to share airtime with its election partner, GMA Network.
Mayor Duterte. At one of the many preparatory meetings called by the Comelec and attended by the campaigns, the parties agreed on formal wear for the candidates. Duterte’s representative could not definitively commit the famously checkered-shirt-and-jeans-wearing mayor. But Duterte did show up in a barong. You should have told us you were in fact wearing a barong, I teased the mayor. We could have sold the show as “Watch Mayor Duterte wearing a barong.” He laughed, and then said: “But this is a sovereign function.” (I share Dean Tony La Viña’s view that Duterte won points just by showing up in a barong. Many people have wondered whether his characteristic informality would become an embarrassment for the Philippines if he were to represent the country in international summits.)
Sen. Grace Poe. When I explained the debate procedure in summary, I noticed that the 2013 Senate topnotcher took careful note. She had obviously been briefed, even about the nature of the three Inquirer Town Hall meetings we conducted in Mindanao in the week leading up to the debate, but she asked a couple of questions that led me to think she was testing her knowledge of the debate format.
Former interior secretary Mar Roxas. Of all the candidates, Roxas seemed the most at ease in his holding room. He met visitors in his undershirt, his barong draped over the sofa. He took time to greet our reporter, Julliane Love de Jesus, a happy birthday, and told her a presidential debate was actually a good way to celebrate. The contrast between his demeanor offstage and his (new) fighting persona onstage (his opening statement was a true opening salvo) was striking.