The “morning face-off” last Tuesday between Manila Mayor Fred Lim and deposed President Joseph Estrada, on ABS-CBN, plumbed a new low in political discourse. Indeed, to call it “discourse” is to drain the word of almost all meaning.
To be sure, the format of the debate between the prominent candidates for mayor of the capital city put a premium on sound bites; the framing of the one-on-one, using the question “Kanino ang Maynila,” could be read as referencing the idea of a turf war (a subject often treated in Estrada’s old movies). The frame seemed to ask: Manila is whose territory?
But the debate rapidly went down to the gutter, and stayed there—and the candidates have only themselves to blame.
Lim, the famous former policeman who served in Estrada’s Cabinet as interior secretary, quickly drew blood. He answered a question by directly addressing Estrada, thus: “Halimbawa, rapist ka …” This was a rhetorical low blow familiar to unseasoned debaters, putting the adversary in a negative light by pretending to use a hypothetical situation. “Let’s say you’re a
Estrada did not sit still. He spent a lot of debate minutes on the subject of Lim as a “traydor”—as someone who betrayed him at the lowest point of his presidency, who then a mere three years later came crawling back to him and begged to be included in the Senate slate of his close friend Fernando Poe Jr. But his argument, if we can call it that, was to claim that Lim had cried profusely.
“Binisita ako, at umiiyak pa” (He visited me, crying). He hammered the crying theme, perhaps because after all these years he continues to see himself as the cinematic tough guy.
Lim defended himself by going on the attack. “Hindi ako iiyak sa isang kriminal, sa isang magnanakaw” (I do not cry before a criminal, a thief).
He returned to the theme of plunder more than once. When Estrada chided him for offering his support during Edsa 2 by rallying the police, only to turn around and join the oust-Estrada crowd at the Edsa Shrine, he responded by saying he had in fact talked to his policemen. When he asked them whether they should continue to support Estrada, he said his men said no. Why support a president who took advantage of the government’s money (“pinagsamantalahan ang pera ng gobyerno”)? they allegedly said.
Perhaps the bottom of the gutter was reached when Estrada questioned Lim’s drug-fighting credentials, not by talking statistics or discussing policy or detailing more effective measures, but by pointing to Lim’s son as a drug user. Whatever happened to that case? he asked.
Lim responded in kind. He said his son had been framed, then added: “E yung anak niya, naaresto rin, may binugbog pang babae” (What about his own son, he was arrested, too, for beating a woman).
At one particularly heated point, Estrada heckled Lim: “Naiiyak na”—to which Lim replied: He is really a liar. As anyone can see, I am not crying.
That sorry exchange summed up the entire sorry debate.
Their followers allowed into the studio lapped the whole thing up, of course. Here were two political heavyweights, fighting toe to toe, slugging it out.
The candidates certainly gave Manila’s voters—and by extension the hundreds of thousands who clicked on the YouTube clip—an exciting show. But did they prove themselves worthy of the capital city? On the contrary.
Let’s consider the assumptions behind the arguments they used. For Estrada, loyalty is everything. True friends do not betray one another. And the truest friend is a tough guy just like him. That he was convicted of plunder, and then pardoned, is immaterial; indeed, he said the government failed to prove anything against him—a ridiculous claim, but apparently a sincere, or at least a long-held, one.
For Lim, the law is everything. Or, to be more precise, for Lim, a policeman first and a lawyer second, “law and order” is everything. The same man who marked the houses of alleged drug dealers did not think twice about casting aspersions on his opponent. And he was more than ready to trade insults about children.
Surely Manila deserves better.