The next weeks will be crucial for the 2022 elections. We need the debates to make the best decision.
Aside from sorties and caravans, one of the highlights of the Philippine presidential elections is the face-to-face debates between political candidates. These hours-long programs are usually organized by free television providers, universities, and other national organizations, and serve as a ringer where candidates are tossed, stretched, and obliged to go neck-to-neck against one another.
At its best, debates squeeze candidates to present their perspectives and policies on crucial national and global issues. At its worst, they serve as an opportunity to make their personality the lone hook with outrageous statements delivered for shock-factor. Either way, a good debate can turn the tide of one’s candidacy, for better or for worse. But what happens now, with a large broadcaster shut down and with social media wielded to influence voting behaviors? Will the presidential debates still matter in the 2022 elections?
For starters, a large portion of the population tunes in to these debates. In the 2016 election, for example, the Presidential debate organized by ABS-CBN, Manila Bulletin, and the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas raked in a whopping 40.6% of viewers — figures comparable only to the episodes of Eat Bulaga that featured AlDub’s (remember them?) first face-to-face interactions. The 2016 election was practically the first social media election in the country. We would find out that paid trolls and bots were actively deployed on Facebook to manipulate public discourse. But, for perspective, 17,000 tweets were posted per minute on that day, accumulating to about 1.9 million overall. On Facebook, 8.2 Million interactions were generated from 3 Million users.
These numbers do not yet include those who watched with their families and friends or watched through other streaming platforms like Facebook and YouTube, although another survey said that 2 out of 3 Filipinos listened to, watched, or read about the second presidential debate as it was televised and/or reconstructed by other media outlets.
Although not in the conventional format, Jessica Soho’s Presidential Interviews with Isko Moreno, Manny Pacquiao, Ping Lacson, and Leni Robredo also dominated the ratings when it aired. Arguably the first political special to air this season, the show registered a 16.2 percent rating based on Nielsen Philippines. Its counterparts on other channels only tallied around two percent. Online, it garnered 290,000 tweets, 4.1 million engagements on Facebook, and caught 230,000 viewers at its peak. On January 25, the video has already amassed 5.2 million views. Considering that the presidentiables didn’t even cross paths on stage, these figures alone show the public clamor for the candidates to appear on a stage and answer some tough questions.
2016, the game-changer
It is impractical to point at debates as the sole reason for the victory of Rodrigo Duterte and Leni Robredo. As in any election, there were a lot of moving pieces in 2016.
But as Rappler columnist and longtime political analyst John Nery has pointed out, “the narratives being strung together through the debates, the confrontations that riveted public attention, the large audiences that were paying sustained attention to the campaign, found a reflection in the surveys.”
There’s a simple reason that we can look at as an attempt to rationalize how the debates affect election turnouts: the debates are an event that perfectly captures how candidates perform under pressure and in unscripted settings. In many ways, the debates show the characters of the candidates and hint at whether or not they can handle the trials and tribulations of a crucial government position.
Take 2016 Bong Bong Marcos as an example. Marcos Jr. started strong in his run but was toppled over by Leni Robredo in the end. Leni was precise in her communication style. She was witty and engaging and made Marcos look like a tongue-tied wimp. Marcos also ended up spending too much time quarreling with Alan Peter Cayetano, Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s then-running mate, in one particular debate which, when juxtaposed to Robredo’s poise, highlighted the “unpresidential” and rabble-rousing nature of the two men.
This seems to have provided a critical lesson for Marcos in the 2022 election season. As anyone can notice, Marcos and his camp have become quiet. We do not often hear them comment on issues that do not directly affect them. We also do not hear about them in high-profile engagements that involve media exposure and Q&A portions. I believe this to be a form of strategic silence for their part, perhaps recognizing that, in order for Marcos to hold his lead, he has to be kept away from unscripted (and unstable) media environments such as ambush interviews, appearances, and, yes, debates. It’s a clever tactic for Marcos, though a great loss for the public.
With this attitude, there’s a possibility that Marcos may also end up not attending the presidential debates organized by large legacy media organizations (we already know he declined at least two appearances). He could do this not only to appear above the whole drama on stage (hence, more “presidentiable” as he won’t, in theory, engage in “pettiness”), but also because he could be the subject of the drama which can reveal, once again, his weakness in rhetoric, argumentation, and improvisation compared to Leni Robredo, whose mass appeal arguably have only gotten stronger. Also added to the mix is Sen. Ping Lacson, who may not be polling as well as Marcos or Robredo, but could pinch from the ratings of the other two by showing off the skills he harnessed over decades of experience in politics. You also have Isko Moreno, who’s obviously taking pages (if not entire chapters) from the Duterte-speak handbook, and Leody de Guzman whose socialist and progressive politics is an interesting contrast to the center and far-right positions of the other candidates.
These things considered, it becomes an absolute must for the debate organizers to have all candidates (or at least the top six) on stage at once. It may not be the only (or best) measure for their competence, but debates are a real opportunity for the public to see the candidates go beyond their manicured advertisements and see how they fare in a stressful environment. After all, politicians, especially presidents, will eventually engage in much harder situations once elected, and the debates are only a glimpse of the political trouble that lies ahead of them.
If (at least) one of them decides to forego the debates, it could lead to two things, depending on how their absence will be reconstructed. On one hand, the candidate could be seen as weak for backing down. On the other, they could also be seen as more respectable for not engaging with “biased media” and focusing instead on the other aspects of the campaigning.
There will also be a heavy burden that falls on the shoulders of the moderators to adjust the sail so as to keep all personalities on stage from falling into disarray. As Soho showed in her Presidential Interview, the moderator serves as the mouthpiece of the public, asking difficult questions as well as questions that the public may not have initially thought of to be important. The moderator articulates these questions, probes the candidates’ answers, and lays down hints of judgment that serve as guide rails for the viewers. It’s a frightening position, as it is much easier to take the safe route in moderating by opting not to hit the candidates too hard so as not to shake the stage and be accused of bias — but doing so would be a disservice to the viewers and the profession.
A successful moderator, then, would probe intelligently to dissect statements to see whether they are empty, are only said for audience impact, or to rouse emotions or if they actually hold water, are feasible, and if they make any sense. It’s a tough post to moderate these debates, but with the right planning with the rest of the program team, the moderator could actually be the most important figure in the debate for what it represents: a smart electorate that would smell and acknowledge bullsh*t from a mile away.
Debates are a make-or-break platform
Philippine elections, much like the previous ones, are personality-oriented. So I couldn’t say that it was surprising that the debates gave a boost to Duterte’s popularity in the 2016 elections. Instead of opting for figures and abstracted concepts, he circled back, over and over again, to a strong campaign message: that he is the change the country needs. Did the audience care how he planned to do it, or if drugs were, in fact, the biggest problem the country is facing? Perhaps some. But when he said that he plans to end the problem in three to six months, that was all that mattered to put him on top.
Manolo Quezon III, historian and former Aquino-administration Undersecretary, admits this much in an interview with journalist Christian Esguerra. According to Quezon, Duterte won the debates in a single sentence. When asked what the biggest problem of the Philippines was, Duterte said “leadership” — a departure from the litany his opponents offered. There wasn’t a correct answer to the question, Quezon said, but Duterte precisely hit the Filipino psyche. His way of talking may be unorthodox (and offensive), but he understood and spoke the language most familiar with the common folk in the debates.
“Duterte may have lied his way to Malacañang presidential palace,” Mong Palatino, a two-term congressman, wrote in the Diplomat, “but he proved that the use of shock and awe sound bites was effective in getting the public’s attention.”
This communication style was seen in his entire campaign trail, and successfully caught people’s eyes and ears and the media’s coverage which further amplified his message. He may not be presidential, but he made the public image that it’s possible to have him as president exactly because he is not like the others. Regardless of his track record or his inability to verbalize a concrete presidential plan on national TV, his communication proved to be effective — he won by a large margin.
In this sense, the debates pose an irony. While debates matter because it’s a way for the public to get to know the candidates better, debates have unfortunately devolved into a pissing contest where you expect their personalities, instead of their plans and perspectives, to be the ultimate measure of their winnability. But this has always been the case for Philippine elections in general — not just in debates. Aside from it being media-driven and dominated by familiar names from political clans, elections in the Philippines are won by a candidate’s character and how they are packaged.
At a time of fragmented media ecosystem, a deluge of micro-targeted campaign efforts that include misinformation and propaganda, having to sit in front of the television, listen on the radio or tune in on social media with the rest of the country for these debates is important for the country to have, at least for a few hours, a collective experience in hopes of forming a shared reality. The real objective of the debates, after all, is not just to make the candidates fight for their spot. In the end, the intended beneficiary should be the public: that we make an informed decision that we can stick with for the next six years.