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At Large

Between distraction and focus

/ 12:30 AM February 23, 2016

We had our grandson in our bedroom with us, so watching “PiliPinas,” (roughly, “Choose, Philippines”), the first of the televised debate series featuring the five presidential candidates (and, later, the “vice presidentiables”) was a matter of balancing distraction and focus, parsing the aspirants’ words, actions and expressions while chasing around the room a restless infant who can now crawl with lightning speed.

So there went my plan to write insightful analysis and measured commentary on the events of Sunday afternoon. Various commentaries have rated the performances of the five, with most voting for either Grace Poe or Mar Roxas as the most impressive and capable debaters. According to a Facebook post, netizens gave their vote of approval to Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as “the most compelling.” I share the view that Miriam Defensor Santiago, who in times past could be counted on to enliven any gathering with her acerbic wit and uncanny way with sound bites, was a disappointment this time around, her energies flagging just minutes after the opening. And Vice President Jojo Binay? He seemed at turns annoyed and defensive, and failed to back his assertions with data or concrete examples.

In short, the debate was somewhat of a letdown. Those looking at political campaigns as mainly entertainment were disappointed. No sparks flew, though at times discussions seemed to teeter on the verge of outright confrontation. Duterte seemed to consciously take on the role of court jester, explaining his reputation as a womanizer by saying he was separated from his two wives (how is that even possible?) and asking what he was supposed to do with the “load I am carrying” (“ang kargada ko” was his more graphic rendering in Filipino). “That’s biology,” he explained.

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Uptight folks might have taken offense, but I’m afraid the machos and young people who love thumbing their noses at convention lapped up his brazen remarks. So much for being presidentiable.

* * *

PERHAPS the lack of sizzle in the proceedings could be attributed to the format of the debate, with time for the candidates to react to questions thrown at them strictly enforced. But at just a minute per candidate, viewers could only tread the surface, getting but a peek of each candidate’s positions without the chance to challenge the assertions made.

The rebuttal opportunities were even shorter, and some candidates chose to use the limited time not to confront each other but rather to harp on their campaign themes.

I understand that the subsequent debates will use different formats, with more time given to give-and-take among the contenders. This should give the public more chances to watch fireworks among them, and an opportunity to judge a candidate’s ability to think on his or her feet without losing one’s temper or equanimity.

Also a missing ingredient, I feel, was the chance for the moderators (GMA 7’s Mike Enriquez and Jessica Soho and Inquirer.net’s John Nery) to interact with the debaters, to raise challenges or ask follow-up questions. As it was, they were made to function as no more than announcers or circus barkers. What a waste of broadcast and journalistic experience!

* * *

COMPLAINTS have also been aired about the amount of time given over to commercials, which viewers felt, rightly or wrongly, ate into the time allotted for more meaningful exchanges.

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Particularly galling was the decision to allow political ads, as clearly the candidates who could afford to place ads in this crucial time slot enjoyed a distinct advantage, since some viewers could confuse their performance in “PiliPinas” with their performance in their own slick advertising materials.

My suggestion to the Commission on Elections, which organized the debates, would be to disallow political advertisements during the subsequent shows, or at least of the candidates involved in the debates. The ads give an unfair advantage to those who can afford to place them in this crucial time slot. After all, they’re free to use commercials at other times of the day, on other shows. The ads cancel out a crucial goal of the debates: to give every candidate an equitable chance to explain himself or herself to voters, without the intervening factor of ad budgets.

* * *

STILL, that the debate materialized at all, with all five candidates in attendance, is something to celebrate and be grateful for.

Perhaps a reason for this is that not one candidate has come to dominate the polling numbers with any certainty. True, the lead in the two most-cited polls has shifted from Poe to Binay, but Duterte and Roxas are fast catching up. This works against the most common campaign advice that the leading candidate should avoid debates as much as possible, especially as Election Day nears. The reason being that if one is already enjoying a comfortable edge, there’s no need to eat into or endanger that lead by taking part in a debate or discussion where one serious flub or inadvertent show of temper or indelicate remark could bring the whole house crashing down.

Clearly, all five (yes, even including Miriam) are feeling antsy, with no clear mandate emerging. The debates offer a chance to present themselves to as broad an audience as possible, and for free at that. The risk of antagonizing viewers is ever present, but there seems more to gain from the added exposure. Besides, how would it look if a candidate were the only one to back out from an appearance? What would that say about the aspirant and his or her chances of winning?

Maybe it’s the viewing public’s fault for seeking entertainment even in an exercise as serious and crucial for our future as a presidential election. We may yet end up laughing at our own expense.

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TAGS: Comelec, Comelec debates, debate, Elections, opinion, presidential debates
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