The third and last Presidential debate in Pangasinan was touted as a possible game changer promising fireworks. Just prior ABS-CBN announced its Pulse Asia survey had Duterte leading with 34 percent followed by Grace (22%), Binay (19%) and Mar (18%) (The VP numbers are Marcos 29%, Leni 23%, Chiz 20% and Cayetano 16%). Pangasinan is home to 1.7 million voters, the third largest after Cebu (2.7 million votes) and Cavite (1.8 million votes).
In fact the debate, all 3 ½ hours, was a non-starter. It was a rehash of past platitudes, platforms and promises. After almost 90 days of official campaigning one could sense the fatigue in the candidates, they just wanted to lay this one to rest.
With Digong in the lead, the pundits predicted he would be pummeled by his closest rivals. In fact all the candidates were at their best behavior with the toughest question of the night being posed by Duterte to Miriam: “How are you? “. There was one fiery altercation between Duterte and Mar on how many Davaoenos actually received Philhealth care. Duterte said none. It is amazing what the man gets away with.
Digong gave the strongest impression with his minimalist and rogue approach to governance. He summarized his platform in one word STOP, stop corruption, stop crime, stop non-sense. His solution to the Chinese annexation of the Spratleys is to personally jump on a jetski, plant the Philippine flag in the islands and “bahala na”.
One can see why Duterte ranks favorably across voter demographics: He leads in both the AB and CD economic classes. Voters are secretly enamored with the romantic notion of a benevolent despot. We easily accepted Marcos’ martial law at the outset. Digong is offering himself as this political Dirty Harry. He trades on fear, for the poor on fear of hardship and crime, for the rich on fear of disturbance and upheaval. He is at the nexus of what voters want: Change, honesty, leadership, accomplishment, and possibly entertainment. The other candidates offer some but not all of these. He is a charmer par excellence who is arguably more interested in adulation than he is in power, hence his outrageous remarks. However, in his search for the next sound bite and audience reaction he risks over-reaching both in words and in deeds. A Duterte Presidency will be part bull in a china shop, part Victoria Court on the Pasig, a fun, unpredictable, knee-jerk and controversial Administration. It is a high risk, high reward proposition, direct at its best, scary at its worst.
Jojo Binay was the traditional politician in full flight, working the entablado and promising to bring Makati to the Philippines. He was with one exception spared any references to corruption. Mar did ask him about the criminal charges and he answered with something on rural development. He was not taking any bait. He was very gentlemanly to Miriam.
Miriam was not well, struggling with her lines, her focus and her condition. People were more interested in her health and her new medication than they were in her programs. She recovered somewhat with her closing statement.
Grace Poe delivered a predictable performance, well rehearsed, well behaved and well groomed. She leveraged her status as a woman in a clear appeal to the female and third gender vote. Grace has lost much of her Big Mo on the security issue. Peace and order has become the dominant electoral theme and most Filipinos believe women cannot be tough on crime. Grace acknowledged as much but she vowed to be as compelling as they come on this matter. She needs to work on this message in the next two weeks but it will not be easy.
Mar delivered his best performance to-date. He was passionate when needed and his closing appeal for decency, care and unity were as close as we have seen to his true persona. His biggest problem is the baggage he has to carry for the failings of the PNoy Administration. Mar promises continuity when the public wants change, even disruptive change. He did well in the debate but probably not enough to get him to within striking distance where the powers of the incumbent –machinery, funding, and a little help from his friends- can make the difference.
Karen Davila looked very nice.
The elections have gone from a referendum on Daan Matuwid, to one on corruption and now on peace and order. This change in the political motif may explain the trailing ratings of Mar, the slippage of Binay, the leveling of Grace and the rise of Duterte. There will be a mad rush in the final weeks to change the outcomes with an explosion in the air and ground war and the release of monies. Currently there are 5% undecideds and 40% of the decideds are still prepared to switch sides; so the race is not over.
The third presidential debate did not tell us anything new. However, what it did –and here we must congratulate ABS-CBN for a job well done- is to bring to our attention the plight of the marginalized in our community. We heard Mang Carlos, Mang Jun, Aling Amina and young Jessa recount the raw desperation in their lives. They were the real story of the debate. The candidates promised them better but I am not so hopeful. I just wish I am wrong.