THE RECENT Vice Presidential debate by ABS-CBN provided the latest, and perhaps the last comprehensive opportunity for voters to assess their choices in what appears to be a tight race. It is at this point when the candidates are revealed more and more for what they are than for what their image-makers are projecting them to be. Even for those who have made their choice, the debate provides a good opportunity for a change of mind.
Among the most noticeable is Antonio Trillanes who looked subdued and tentative, like a man who just got off the sickbed. He was the first to waive his opportunity to ask a question to his fellow candidate that the debate format allowed. He didn’t even bother to utilize his full time allotments for his answers. This may be consistent with his persona as a man of action, not of words, but he looked like a man eager for the debate to end. He was memorable in the last CNN VP debate for convincingly stopping an Alan-Cayetano-in-attack-mode by forcing him to admit that the Duterte-Cayetano tandem cannot really stop crime in three to six months. Last Sunday Trillanes was a shadow of his previous self. There was still the ramrod straight bearing of the former soldier and gentleman, but it was clear to see that the fire was gone, as if the extended stay in the cellars of all campaign polls since the campaign started has taken the sparkle of any hope of victory.
Alan Cayetano again hammered on leadership and political will, to highlight the difference with the rest of the pack and to justify their lack of detailed programs. He said you can surf the Internet for the programs, but it is leadership and political will that is sorely lacking wit his opponents. However, the absence of Cayetano’s whipping boy, Bongbong Marcos, seemed to have taken the wind from his sail. His incendiary attacks on Marcos provided most of the fireworks in the previous week’s CNN debates. He tried to bait Chiz Escudero instead, attacking his alleged absence in Senate’s Binay corruption hearings, but it merely provided Escudero the gift of time, as the debate rules allow a candidate called out an extra minute to answer. Escudero deftly obliged him, and cited delicadeza and his consistent stand to never to use his position to attack his enemies.
Coming to the debate without a program of action and a preferred target, Cayetano invited focus instead on his bible-based religiosity, his devotion to his wife, and an emotional invocation of the memory and legacy of his late father Rene Cayetano. He said that on his deathbed, his father’s thoughts were of the country. Alan recalled that his father, a member of the then Interim Batasan Pambansa, chose to go up against Marcos in 1986, and how their entire family decided to stay despite his father’s wishes for them to leave the country to avoid danger. He also pointed out that he fought his wedding godmother, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, on the issue of corruption, consistent with his family legacy.
The emotional appeal was slightly ruffled by the question from the moderators on his position on the latest rape “joke” of his running mate Rodrigo Duterte that is currently going viral over the internet. Clearly disturbed by the question, he urged the audience to focus on what the man has actually done, and not on his words.
Leni Robredo exhuded confidence. One can now detect a certain swagger, a tentative yabang about her that was clearly not there before. She practically declared victory when she addressed her daughters in the audience and referred to their campaign hardships. “Ilang tumbling na lang,” she assured them.
Next to Escudero, it was Leni who took the opportunity to explain her programs but, unlike him, she basically stuck to broad definitions where she appears most comfortable, mostly a repetition of her CNN spiels. She reiterated her vision of a VP for the marginalized sectors of society (laylayan ng lipunan), citing her previous work as lawyer for abused women, farmers and others. She used to work with the government’s Public Attorneys Office (PAO). When asked if she will accept a job she feels will only waste her talents when she becomes VP, she chose to be evasive saying she can serve the people even without an official position. In the previous debate, she said she wanted a job coordinating all government anti-poverty programs.
It is in the details of major policy issues outside her experience that Leni mostly betrays her lack of grasp, and tended to appear lost. Caught with the question about how she will respond to the confirmed emergence of ISIS in Mindanao during her term, she basically just answered: “Aksyonan na agad yan, huwag na hintayin pa mangyayari.” She initially tried to bring the issue to a higher level saying that the answer to the war in Mindanao is the creation of a better-represented Bangsa Moro Law. Her revealing lack of detailed understanding is reminiscent of her CNN VP debate appearance where she was caught erroneously saying that Indonesia is a claimant in the current South China sea dispute.
Robredo did an Alan Cayetano by also closing with an emotional appeal to the memory of another deceased politician – her late husband Jesse Robredo. It was a well-worn recitation but surprising in the sense that, with her numbers rising in the polls, she could have remained consistent with her can-do attitude and taken the opportunity to stress her own merits. Like Cayetano, Robredo chose to revert to the more comfortable emotional appeal using her children there present as props for a political stage, citing in particular their fears of the perils of politics and of images of planes crashes, clearly referring to the way her husband died.
To be sure, Robredo’s emotional appeal was tinged with a sense of rising confidence, but more of victory than of her own merits. This is increasingly crucial if she is to convince all that the best woman for the job is actually her own woman, and not a party puppet or someone else’s creation. Because of their limited experience, political newcomers usually present a small target, and this helps in projecting a clean image for them. But with Robredo now among the leaders, this clean image is now vulnerable to attack, mostly centering on her submissiveness to the Liberal Party. Critics now cite her withdrawal of support for the bill raising SSS pensions due to Party pressure, and her use of government resources in the campaign. Projecting personal strength and independence is now crucial if she is to offer herself as a candidate of national unity in a highly polarized political environment brought in no small part by the very party she is using as a vehicle to rise to power. This has always been her original baggage, and she has the heaviest of them all, next to Bongbong Marcos. There are risks to dropping that baggage, and she has so far proved unwilling to take them.
The Chiz Escudero that appeared in the last VP debate was not a new one. But it is a refreshing version, perhaps even better version, of the vintage young, articulate Escudero who rose to stratospheric “rock-star” popularity in his opposition to the corruption-tainted Arroyo administration. There is still the usual precision, the sure command of issues, the trademark readiness to engage, and the quickness of wit that supporters find impressive and his opponents find slick. But all agree that it is almost impossible to catch him unprepared, even at his worst. Unlike his previous appearances, the old fire is back.
Of all candidates it was Escudero who took most advantage of the occasion to present the most detailed and sweeping program of government spending: a trillion pesos for infrastructure and social services for Mindanao to jumpstart progress and address its historical grievance and a bold 100 billion plan for OFWs to cover the creation of a separate Department for overseas workers, setting up of new embassies and hiring personnel, increase in the fund for legal assistance, hiring of lawyers, repatriation, OFW retirement pension fund, and making Philhealth benefits available even overseas. Under his Gobyernong May Puso program with Grace Poe, he also vowed to end labor contractualization. In answer to critics about spending too freely, Escudero insisted they are not costs but investments on people.
Escudero likewise promised to be tough on crime, but focuses on addressing its roots in poverty. Patayin ang gutom, hindi ang nagugutom.
In the end, he tried to project himself as a candidate of unity. He reiterated assurances of independence, citing his personal connections with people whom he broke friendships with on the ground of corruption. Whether he is aware of this or not, this is an astute move. Although polls provide evidence that his partnership with Poe seems to work, Filipinos historically seek to balance their choices of President with that of the Vice President, and pick from different parties. Escudero’s talents could make him a good balancer, either to complement or to fiscalize, with other Presidential choices. An independent stance plays to his strengths, and could appeal to voters seeking that balance, while at the same time solidifying his own position as the rock of a Poe presidency.
Fortunately for Escudero, he does not have the baggage of Robredo, but he must do more to convince everyone that he is not too soft on President Noynoy Aquino because of their well-known personal closeness. But he is getting there. Escudero has been very publicly opposing the use of government resources for partisan political activities, and has been openly calling out PNoy on this. He has also strongly opposed the President’s veto of the bill increasing SSS benefits. If Escudero could successfully project himself as the candidate of unity, something which he is uniquely in the best position to make, he may well be able to consolidate both the opposition and continuity vote behind his column.
The VP race, like its counterpart in the Presidential race, is too close to call. The next few weeks will be frenetic. This is a race between Robredo, Marcos and Escudero, with Cayetano desperately holding a rearguard action to remain afloat. The preferences could change, and change so fast. Voters must look, and look again, at their choices.