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The most unforgettable debate

/ 12:49 AM March 22, 2016

FOR THE first time, a presidential debate in the Philippines matched the argumentative tone and reckless rancor of the current American format. Whether this is, in the end, a positive development for our democratic project is an open question.

Don’t get me wrong. As I told friends in TV5, the public witnessed the most unforgettable debate in Philippine political history because the network stood its ground. Congratulations are definitely in order.

The second PiliPinas debate, sanctioned by the Commission on Elections and held on the grounds of the University of the Philippines Cebu, made up for its much-delayed start with a riveting series of sharp exchanges between the four presidential candidates. Vice President Jejomar Binay and former interior secretary Mar Roxas, the two candidates with the most experience in national office, could reasonably claim that their rivals had “ganged up” on them—Binay for the allegations of corruption against him and his family, Roxas for the accusations of Aquino administration incompetence and Liberal Party insincerity.

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But there were intense exchanges, too, between Roxas and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, between Roxas and Sen. Grace Poe, and between Binay and Poe. (Duterte had a few choice quips for Binay during the debate, but the most consequential exchange between the two longtime local executives took place before the debate started, when Duterte added his objection to Binay’s attempt to bring documents to the stage.)

READ: In risky move, Binay challenges debate rule

I was able to catch the debate, and filed three “breaking views” (to use a term first applied by Reuters)—on-the-fly analyses as the event took place or soon after it ended.

In “In risky move, Binay challenges debate rule,” published online at 7:22 p.m., I referenced the adverse reaction of the audience inside the debate venue to the Vice President’s attempt to bring documents to the stage, and wondered whether the high-profile risking of political capital was worth it.

“Every time Binay insisted on his right to present the documents, the majority of the audience either booed him or chanted ‘No notes’ or made disparaging remarks. Roxas took Binay to task by calling for a ‘rules-based’ society, while Poe emphasized the character-revealing nature of presidential debates. Duterte, like Binay a veteran lawyer, questioned Binay’s attempt to present documents that the candidates could not independently authenticate.”

READ: Tempers fly as candidates audition to be strong leaders

In “Tempers fly as candidates audition to be strong leaders,” published online at 8:30 p.m., I described the heated exchanges between the candidates, and proposed an explanation for the heat.

“In a debate that at many points threatened to spin out of control, the four presidential candidates came prepared to engage. They repeatedly exchanged sharp words with each other, in a bid to put their stamp on only the second official presidential debate held in 24 years. In practice, putting their stamp meant exhibiting strength of leadership by talking over each other.”

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And in “Candidates’ ‘pet words’ reveal character, strategy,” published online at 1 a.m. (after a very late dinner with Inquirer.net staff covering the debate), I focused on the use of “certain words or terms repeatedly or in a characteristic way that revealed either a dimension of their personality or an aspect of their campaign strategy.” On Binay’s introduction of his Joseph Goebbels defense, for instance, I argued: “The Goebbels line seems to be part of a larger defense strategy for Binay: To make the case that the many allegations of corruption levelled against him and his family were just that—‘bintang’ or accusations that still need to be proven in court. His rivals’ unceasing repetition of these accusations, he suggested, was threatening to turn accusation into conviction in the public mind.”

 READ: Candidates’ ‘pet words’ reveal character, strategy

But the exhilaration I felt listening to the first sharp exchanges turned in the end into a sense of disquiet. Now that we finally have the presidential candidates committed to a series of high-profile debates, for the first time in a quarter century, do we want them to turn into Donald Trump? Disrespectful of the process, openly contemptuous of the competition and the electorate, ready to substitute insult for argument and one-liners for substance?

Again, don’t get me wrong. It was good to hear Binay (in that extraordinary hour before the debate finally began) remind the organizers that according to the rules, the audience is supposed to behave itself, to hear Duterte propose a reasonable compromise for Binay’s use of the documents (don’t use them during the debate, he said, but present them in a press conference after), to hear Poe take Roxas to task directly for allegedly selective LP justice, to hear Roxas contest Duterte’s war-on-crime claims or (the bit of staged political drama that earned repeated gasps from the audience) itemize the allegedly overpriced items purchased by the Makati City government.

But the summation offered by the front office clerk on duty at our hotel when we straggled back in was telling: The debate was very interesting, he said, smiling. It was like “Gladiator”!

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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand

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