Most overseas Filipinos are apolitical, probably ignoring yesterday’s face-to-face debate among five candidates for the presidency. But whether they like it or not, their lives abroad or that of their loved ones back home will be touched by the administration of the Philippines’ next president who will serve for six years starting June this year.

Yesterday’s debate in Cagayan de Oro city in Mindanao, the first of three nationally-televised meetings of the five presidential candidates displayed to all Filipinos some of all five aspirants’ best and worst forms — intellectual and physical.

Physically, it was clear that Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s health is a big question mark, as she struggled at times to cope with the fast-paced mental exchanges with her peers. To her credit, she put vice president Jojo Binay to task for insisting that there’s nothing wrong in having a political dynasty for as long as people are voting into office members of one family. At one point in time not too long ago, all members of Binay’s family are in public office.

A veteran constitutionalist, Santiago said the constitution has a provision that prohibits political dynasty. While it has not yet been implemented, it has to be complied with, she added. Binay’s “palusot” (bid to evade the issue) was clearly rebuffed by Santiago.

But while Santiago flashed occasional legal brilliance, the pained expression on her face and her body movements as she bravely steered through the two-hour public debate clearly showed that Stage 4 cancer is exacting a heavy toll on her body. Not even her fiery retort to the moderator’s blunt question about the state of her health could negate the fact the apparent fragile of her health.

Her biggest problem remains her monstrously huge ego. She should muster enough courage and humility to admit to the Filipino people that her physical health is already failing and the time has come for her to step down from public limelight. She will be widely acknowledged anyway for her long years of public service. It’s pointless trying to fool the Filipino people that she remains fit and capable to perform the role of the country’s highest official.

As expected, Binay was asked bluntly to explain his unexplained wealth, particularly his ownership of various tracts of land. Just like what he has done in the past, he tried to deflect the issue by effectively challenging the moderators what’s wrong with civil servants acquiring and putting up properties. Earnings from his law practice and his stint as mayor of Makati were primarily used to acquire the family’s properties, he said.

But can a human rights lawyer before he was appointed as Makati mayor in 1986 and being a city mayor really enable him to amass huge amounts to be able acquire very expensive properties in the country’s premier financial district? Very simple research and check of earnings in the government will show that Binay was lying through his teeth before national television.

Binay’s claim that he was instrumental in making Makati the rich city that it is was immediately blasted by former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas who said it is the Ayala Corporation — not the municipal government — which is responsible for the success of the financial district. Roxas added that certain districts in Makati remain very poor even if the Binays had been in control of the city for more than 20 years. Again, Binay’s lies were rebuffed.

As expected, Roxas emphasized the gains of President Benigno Aquino’s administration at almost every twist and turn. He must have scored some points this way. But at various times, he struggled to explain issues in a clear and direct manner that can be understood readily by laymen or common people. His decision to use thinly-veiled negative descriptions of his major presidential rivals also stood out as he was the only one who used that questionable approach to try to damage their credibility and spruce up his image. Rozas clearly referred to Duterte when he referred to someone who is hot tempered (mainit ang ulo) and to Senator Grace Poe as someone with little experience in public governance.

Davao city Rodrigo Duterte clearly exudes charisma as he passionately spoke about federalism as the best way forward to peace in Mindanao after the proposed Bangsa Moro Basic Law was rejected and that he would only need three to six months to get rid of most major criminals, especially drug lords, and substantially curb corruption.

Duterte was at times witty and sharp at the expense of Roxas, the presidential rival who has embarassed him the most in the past and whom he obviously detests the most. Asked for a 60-second rebuttal or comment on Roxas’ agenda to help resolve the problems of fishermen, Duterte initially said he won’t rebut and would even copy Roxas’ response. Duterte’s initial response was clearly intended to both humor, irritate and mock Roxas. Duterte subsequently lashed out at the government’s fishery initiatives, saying that while they may be sound, they are hampered by graft and corruption and implementation of good programs therefore become problematic or gets bogged down.

Eliminating and “killing” notorious criminals, especially drug lords, in just three to six months. This is certainly music to the ears of many. Many Pinoys certainly welcome this promised big change for the better. So is his pledge to crack down hard on corruption.

But how realistic, attainable and sincere are these promises — coming from a veteran politician, like Duterte? How many times have Filipinos been burned by tall election promises of veteran politicians who conveniently forget or ignore them after getting elected into office?

The Duterte family has been in control of Davao city for about 28 years now. And yet drug trafficking remains a problem in the city. Philippine National Police statistics also indicate that  the incidence of crimes in the city remains among the highest in the country. This particular disclosure by Roxas has embarassed and angered Duterte no end.

Duterte’s promise to eliminate in just three to six months major criminals sounds too good to be true. If he has not totally eliminated major crimes in Davao, such as drug trafficking and smuggling, in the past 28 years that his family has controlled the city, how can he possibly get rid of major criminals across the country of 7,100 islands in just three to six months?

What he promises is simply humanly impossible! Even if he sets up death squads in all provinces, it looks unlikely for any government to eradicate major criminal groups in just a matter of months. His pledge on criminality appears to be more of a tall election promise more than a realistic and attainable goal.

His proposal to kills as many major criminals as possible is likely to result in killing zones and shootings across the country in the hunt for major criminals. Bullets don’t choose targets. Innocent civilians are therefore likely to get hit and die in the crossfire. Is the Philippines ready for a wide array of armed confrontations across the country as death squads and policemen hunt down and kill major criminals? How many civilians will die in the process? And when will the cycle of violence end as major criminals fight back?

Hong Kong’s situation is a much better option to Duterte’s proposed solution of hunting down and killing major criminals. Effective policing. An efficient, effective and virtually corruption-free justice system. Why can’t the Philippines have these essential elements to fight major crimes — and avoid killings which can also result in deaths of innocent civilians?

Duterte’s vow to crack down hard on corruption is well and good. But he clearly contradicts himself in this area with his pledge to free detained former president Gloria Arroyo and senators Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada. The Ombudsman have found enough evidence to charge all three for plunder that’s why they are detained today.  Freeing them  for no apparent reason and ignoring evidence that have been gathered against them makes his pledge to fight corruption virtually meaningless.

Senator Grace Poe tried to overcome skepticism of her relatively short public service by saying that many of the country’s problems remain unchanged even if past presidents had prior long years of political experience. She tried to explain that new ideas and fresh changes can be introduced in government by someone, like her, with fresh ideas and energy. It is unclear to what extent her attempt will persuade millions of Filipinos who watched the debate that she is a better option than her rivals who are all political heavyweights.

But to her credit, her overall performance hardly showed signs that she is a political neophyte. Instead of resorting to general motherhood statements of uplifting the lot of  poor people and addressing major problems of the country, she outlined specific measures and programs that her administration will undertake if she gets elected as president.

She must have also endeared herself to people in Mindanao with her pledge to allocate up to 30 percent of the government’s budget to the region and rehabilitate several power projects to resolve Mindanao’s continuing brownout problem.

Like Duterte, Poe spoke in a language and in specific issues that common people can easily relate to and identify. She displayed an uncanny ability to connect to the masses while also expounding intelligently on macro-socio-economic issues.

These latter qualities probably explain to a large extent that Poe and Duterte are virtually tied as frontrunners in the latest opinion survey this month.  In the coming weeks and months, it won’t be very surprising if the presidential electoral contest remain a close one — as reflected in opinion surveys — between Poe and Duterte.









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