Candidates’ ‘pet words’ reveal character, strategy

The second Comelec-sanctioned presidential debate was a series of often-heated exchanges between the four candidates, with evident animus between Vice President Jejomar Binay and the rival he defeated for the vice presidency in 2010, former secretary Mar Roxas. There were testy encounters too between Roxas and the politician he wanted as his running mate, Senator Grace Poe, and between Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Roxas.

Over the course of the debate in Cebu, the candidates used 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.

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The most striking example was Binay, who introduced the name of the infamous propaganda minister of Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels, to denounce what he called the “conspiracy” of corruption allegations against him. To Goebbels is attributed the saying that if a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes accepted as truth.

Binay directed his Goebbels accusation principally at Roxas, who had before the start of the debate provoked the vice president by saying he should have brought a copy of the Commission on Audit report that was unfavourable to Binay. Roxas denied knowing much about Goebbels and even twitted Binay over his choice of reading matter.  But Binay also used the Goebbels defense against Poe, at one point saying, “Disipulo ito ni Goebbels” (She’s a disciple of Goebbels’).

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.

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Roxas’ favorite tactic when a rival would speak at the same time he did was to firmly insist that it was still his turn. “Oras ko po ito” (It’s my time), he said again and again — reinforcing his position that the candidates must abide by the rules of the debate and at the same time integrating his answers into one of his presidential campaign’s overarching themes, “Oras Na, Roxas Na” — loosely, It’s Roxas’ Time.

The notion of “Roxas time” references the candidate’s long public service career which includes stints in the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as in three Cabinets, and also promotes his campaign narrative of continuity with the Aquino administration.

READ: In risky move, Binay challenges debate rule

Aside from the familiar refrain of “pumatay” and “mamatay” (to kill and to die), the straight-talking Duterte did not display any other obvious rhetorical tics or tactics. He did become “brutally frank” with Roxas, calling him a “pretentious leader” and, even more startling, “a fraud.”

These were the harshest words Duterte used in the debate, and the fact that he directed them at Roxas was telling. It reinforced the perception that he saw his candidacy as primarily a threat against Roxas’, rather than Binay’s or Poe’s.

In the heated discussion about the rules of the debate which delayed the start of the forum, Poe explained why she was against Binay’s attempt to present documents during the debate. It’s not only what we say or do on this stage that people will listen to or learn from, she said. It’s also our “character” or attitude.

She would use the “character” argument at least two more times during the debate itself, a possible indication that, beyond doing one’s homework for the debates — the first in the Philippines in a quarter-century—she recognizes where a political newcomer’s strength might truly lie.