Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Face-off

This is my column today.

Most of the attention in this election season has so far been focused on the so-called presidentiables so when I learned that ABS-CBN was putting together a debate featuring the candidates for vice president, I marked the date on my calendar and made sure I would be home to watch the telecast.

Harapan (roughly, the face-off): The Vice Presidential Debate, happened last Sunday and featured (in alphabetical order) Makati Mayor Jojo Binay, former Metro Manila Development Authority chairman Bayani Fernando, Senator Loren Legarda, Senator Mar Roxas, broadcast journalist Jay Sonza, and former Securities and Exchange Commission chair Jun Yasay. Noticeably absent was former Optical Media Board chairman Edu Manzano.

Harapan was instructive in many aspects.

It showcased a different way of conducting a debate. We’ve gotten used to debates conducted in a very somber way, which most people have come to associate with or confuse with earnestness. People do have this strange notion that just because people are wearing a Barong Tagalog and sit in high-backed chairs the quality of the discussion is a notch higher.

Last Sunday’s Harapan was conducted in a relatively informal way—instead of holding it inside some cavernous auditorium, it was conducted in an open-air theater. The atmosphere of the debate was generally festive and supporters of each candidate came to the venue with all the necessary campaign paraphernalia—placards, pompoms, streamers, and other hand-held materials—and they jeered and cheered, heckled and applauded the candidates. The candidates even dressed down for the occasion with all of them sporting simple jeans and t-shirt. Fernando came in costume—he wore a construction hard hat, the significance of which was lost on some people. There were actually people on Facebook and even in the chatroom of the ABS-CBN Web site who asked why he was wearing a plastic hat. This just goes to prove that being literal does not guarantee that people will get the meaning of one’s political statement.

I don’t mean to belittle the stature of La Consolacion College—I am sure it has an illustrious history as an educational institution—but I don’t know if the choice of venue for the debate was indicative of the level of import we attach to the office of the vice president. Recall that the series of debates for the presidential candidates was held at top-tier universities.

Harapan featured a different format. Instead of having the moderator pose questions directly at the candidates, the vice presidential candidates were pitted against each other, confrontation style, as if in keeping with the title of the debate. The candidates were paired according to their rankings in the surveys. This set-up highlighted the intense competition—or conversely, the utter lack of it—between certain candidates. Expectedly, Roxas and Legarda—the fierce rivals for the post according to surveys—lunged at each other’s throats. On the other hand, the long-simmering conflict between Binay and Fernando which was evident when Fernando was MMDA chair was brought to the fore once again. In contrast, Yasay and Sonza didn’t really have issues against each other so they basically used the occasion to sell themselves.

This format enabled the audience to appreciate the issues that represented the proverbial Achilles’ heel of the top candidates. In the case of Legarda, it’s her efforts to make the environment the end-all and be-all of her campaign seemingly because it’s her expertise. In the case of Roxas, it’s the supposed watered-down version of the Cheaper Medicines Act, which many claim was a concession Roxas made to drug manufacturers. In the case of Fernando, it’s his perceived lack of empathy for the issues of the poor and his seeming disregard for due process. Allegations of corruption and his coddling of squatters in Makati, of course, have always hounded Binay.

As if to provide a diversion from all that confrontation, Harapan ended with the candidates answering questions supposedly contributed by the audience. By the looks of it, the people that formulated those questions must have been avid followers of the Miss Universe contest because there is just no other way to describe the questions except to label them as pang-beauty contest. Just trying to recall the questions give me goose bumps; they were that corny. To make things worse, they actually picked the questions from a glass bowl!

That was really sad because the debate was also broadcast via the Internet and there were lots of really interesting comments and questions that were raised in the interactive discussions that were happening via the chat room established in the ABS-CBN website and through Facebook and Twitter. There’s a lot of interest in the current political events and there are lots and lots of people out there who want to participate in the discussion online. It’s a pity that the organizers of these debates don’t tap into this rich resource.

I was hoping that there would be a live interface between the two media platforms (traditional media represented by television and the Internet) but apparently this wasn’t the intent of the organizers. The interaction that was happening in cyberspace was really just a parallel discussion independent of what was happening onstage at La Consolacion College and on television. The fact that the candidates had alter egos in the chat room that tried to answer questions posed by chatters reinforced the fact that the two platforms were really separate and distinct.

Harapan also validated what most people have suspected all along: This current political contest has gotten personal. Our political candidates try to put up this impression that they are resilient to intrigues, mudslinging and personal attacks and that they can roll with the punches. Tempers boiled last Sunday and the attacks became vicious. It was evident that certain candidates were losing their cool and were raring to go low and dirty. Even more telling was the reaction of the audience—I think the audience cheered loudest when their candidates delivered a stinging blow to his or her rival.

I don’t want to write off whatever chances Sonza and Yasay have of winning the vice presidency, but based on what happened last Sunday, it seems the vice presidency is really a toss-up among at least four candidates now: Roxas, Legarda, Binay, and Fernando. And based on the results of the survey conducted last Sunday, Roxas’ lead is almost insurmountable. I think Legarda’s attempt to capitalize on her gender (she kept on stressing the fact that she was the only woman running for the vice presidency) and what many saw as a deliberate attempt to portray a softer image (perhaps to contrast the oversupply of testosterone last Sunday) seemed to have backfired on her. Of course it is possible that Legarda was simply tired last Sunday and didn’t have as much energy for the debate.

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