It didn’t take much time for tensions to run high during the vice presidential debates this year. When former congressman and academic Walden Bello began rebutting the statements of sitting senators Kiko Pangilinan and Senate President Tito Sotto, he could not be stopped by neither the moderators nor his mic being cut off. His running mate Ka Leody De Guzman humorously described it on Twitter as “hyper.” (Bello would later say during the live telecast that he didn’t actually enjoy “dumping” on senators Pangilinan and Sotto.) When the topic of political dynasties came up, he had a few spicy words to say about absentee candidate Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, who was represented by an empty podium.
“I think the main problem we face is the Marcos-Duterte tandem,” Bello said. “I feel very strongly about the absence of these two idiots in the debate." The word “coward” came up a few times, as well as some expletives. The modest crowd inside the UST Quadricentennial Pavilion couldn’t decide between shock or laughter.
This is perhaps the first time in a very long time that a televised debate for veep was so sparsely populated — without the colors that define each candidate, the debate became an opportunity to see all seven of them plainly, maybe even a little more human than ever before. But earlier that day, along the hallways of University of Santo Tomas’s Roque Ruaño building, candidates knocked on the classrooms-turned-holding rooms of the competition, not unlike the way friends visited each other during recess. Cardiologist and social media personality Willie Ong made a whole campaign about it, making sure to have a few nice words to say about each candidate. His wife, physician Anna Liza Ramoso-Ong, trailed behind dutifully, holding onto his face mask and making sure to document Ong’s every move on her own phone.
To Pangilinan, Ong extended thanks on behalf of senatorial hopeful Samira Gutoc, who ran under the Otso Diretso ticket back in 2019 but is now running under his party, Aksyon Demokratiko. “Samira says thank you sa lahat ng naitulong mo [sa kanya],” Ong told him. (Pangilinan replied, “Tell her I’m just a text away.”) When he visited Bello, he was generous with his praises. He said that like Bello, he refuses to accept outside funding to fuel his campaign. “Anti-imperialism rin po [ako],” he told the older candidate. Bello eventually warmed up to him after Ong offered help on anything he might need — perhaps he’s dealing with high blood pressure? Bello said that he does, in fact, have pretty low blood pressure, and Ong switches to doctor mode, setting his rival aside for a spontaneous consult. When a photographer started clicking close by, Ong turned him away politely and said, “Wag muna CNN dito.”
The numbers don’t matter
The latest Pulse Asia survey shows that the likely VP bet to win the race didn’t even bother to make it to the debate; Mayor Duterte got the vote of 50% of respondents, followed by Sotto and Pangilinan at 29% and 11% respectively. The rest of the candidates, some of whom have never held public office, have much more work to do in order to win more votes. None of them seem to be bothered that the lion's share of votes seem to favor a candidate with an empty podium.
Pro-life advocate Rizalito David is no stranger to the odds being stacked against him. This is his third attempt at running for a national position. David came to the venue with no one but himself, and a manifesto printed on bond paper that he calls “Rebuild.” He says that he also personally writes the captions of his Facebook posts. When he ran for senator in 2013, placing 30th, he proudly claimed that he spent “less than ₱100,000” and yet won a million votes. Candidates who spent way more than he did in the same elections — in the hundred millions, he said — managed to gain just the same amount of votes. “I only spent a few centavos on each vote,” David said.
Without the kind of fanfare national debates usually have, the candidates soon moved to the UST Quadricentennial Pavilion, where tensions ran high and strong words were said. But in the common holding room backstage, seven men attempted to banter with each other; maybe to calm the nerves, maybe to psyche out the competition. (Economist Manny SD Lopez asked lawyer Carlos Serapio about the air purifier hanging from his neck. “What is that, an amulet?”)
Two minutes before the show began, the candidates lined up quietly after being briefed by the producers. On their side of the stage, David greeted his seatmates Bello and Lopez with “good luck.” The other two responded and the good luck wishes were passed among the three of them — interestingly, it’s the total opposite of Bello’s incensed tone during the actual debate. In this interim world, everybody is nice, and everybody is here to make friends. But when the debate finally begins, it’s clear that the lines have always been drawn between them. They’ve just all agreed to ignore them in the meantime.