During the CNN Philippines Presidential debate last Sunday, hosts Pia Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan and Pinky Webb asked the candidates about the importance of such a forum.
Labor leader Ka Leody De Guzman was first up to respond, saying "Napaka-importante nito, dapat nandito 'yung isang kasama namin." On the live broadcast, the camera quickly cut to an empty podium bearing the name of the absent Senator Bongbong Marcos. “Importante ito para malaman sana’t masabi kung ano ‘yung mga programa,” continued De Guzman.
Like his running mate, former congressman Walden Bello at the Vice Presidential debate the day before, De Guzman wasn’t afraid to single out the only candidate absent at the day’s event. Though their audio wasn’t enabled, members of the virtual audience could be seen clapping in agreement.
After him, the eight other Presidential candidates took a similar stance; Manila Mayor Isko Moreno compared the debate to a job interview, saying, “[K]ami po ay aplikante sa trabaho. Gusto mo naman bang mag-hire ng isang empleyado na hindi mo nakausap, hindi mo nakita?” Vice President Robredo also did not hold back, adding “Pag hindi ka mag-show up in the most difficult times, hindi ka lider… Kaya para sa’kin, ito ‘yung pagbibigay halaga at respeto sa taumbayan na maghahalal sa’yo.”
Marcos Jr. controversially declined CNN Philippines’ invitation to participate and was instead seen campaigning in the vote-rich Pangasinan province last weekend. An empty podium was left for him on stage at the UST Quadricentennial Pavilion.
New pandemic restrictions
In the debate teaser that ran on CNN Philippines prior to the weekend, CNN senior anchor Rico Hizon remarked that while attendance was not mandatory, “[p]articipation says a lot about the candidate. It demonstrates their profound national commitment ahead of the general elections on May 9.”
Nine out of ten candidates were present at Sunday’s event, which had a slightly different format this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. In the past, candidates arrived with entourages composed of several media relations officers, campaign advisers, and bodyguards, while supporters would cheer from the stands. But the pandemic has changed things — this time, all candidates strictly abided by the 10-person maximum, and the live audience was limited to companions and staff.
This meant that many of the candidates pared down their usual campaign entourages, resulting in a bit less chaos than usual at this point in the campaign period.
The lack of public participation inside the venue didn’t stop their supporters from congregating outside of the university. Along Dapitan street, citizens clad in campaign paraphernalia colored red, white, blue, and pink are spotted watching through a truck fitted with a large LCD screen. Though it is unclear who sent the truck, reporters observed the screen playing Senator Manny Pacquiao’s campaign videos prior to the debate’s 5 p.m. airtime.
By the time the debate began inside, it was a full-on party outside, with loud music and drum beats blaring and supporters chanting their bets’ names to cheer them on. The inside of the dim auditorium was decidedly less boisterous; with the cheers and violent reactions mostly coming from their few companions. There were occasional heckles from the sides, mostly to chant their candidates’ names, and some to say that the debate was biased.
To comply with health protocols, candidates and their entourage were asked to submit a negative PCR test upon entry to their holding rooms located at UST’s Roque Ruaño building located across the pavilion.
No one was exempt from this — even the stern-faced Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson, who arrived past 3 p.m. with his bodyguards, making the short walk from the parking lot to the entrance of the building, only to realize that he had forgotten his test result in the car. This didn’t seem to faze the senator, who maintained his expression and returned to the parking lot to retrieve the result himself with no question.
Leveling the playing field
Dr. Jose Montemayor Jr. was one of the first to arrive. Dressed in a suit and tie, the physician-slash-lawyer is comfortable around a camera, flashing a smile whenever he’d see a lens aimed at him. When the CNN Philippines Life team asked to take a few behind-the-scenes shots, he asked if the other candidates had already arrived, “Dapat pabayaan mo na sila; mga senior sila.” Later that night, his name trended on social media for his rebuttals aimed at fellow candidates.
By the time he entered the classroom-turned-holding room, his running mate and pro-life advocate Rizalito David was already seated, ready “to support.” The day before, David was the only Vice Presidential candidate to arrive sans an entourage.
Inside the room next to his, Faisal Mangondato of the Katipunan party was engaged in a conversation about religion and greed with his companions, who wore vests bearing his name. He is the first Muslim presidential candidate in Philippine history. Mangondato approached the day’s festivities with a certain kind of reverence, a countenance unwavering despite the difficult questions he and the rest of the candidates were made to answer.
Soon after, a freshly-shaved De Guzman made his entrance with a party of nine people (including his daughter), fist bumping staff as he walked to his room on the other side of the hall. His attire was his usual — a red polo shirt and denim jeans, completed with a pair of black Skechers.
He was the only presidential candidate to make an appearance at the previous day’s debate, and so the team asks his election assistant and MRO Aladdin Panganiban if the VP candidate is coming, to which Panganiban replies in the affirmative. “Jowa of the year sila,” he says, joking about the closeness of their tandem. The jowa in question, former congressman Bello, arrives in the holding room soon after, and the two go over the previous day’s events, not unlike friends catching up in a coffee shop.
When Vice President Robredo and her entourage arrived, the building lobby lightened (visually), owing mostly to the team’s get-up — varying shades of their campaign color pink, which was a stark contrast to the previous arrivals’ dark suits and off-white barong tagalogs. When she stepped in for her portrait session, her daughters Aika, Tricia, and Jill playfully teased her from the back of the room. As they watched their mother pose, youngest sister Jill shouts the word "model!” jokingly in her direction. Then she turns to her sisters and does a little voice impersonating a popular meme: "I'm Lynn from Las Vegas... models." The other sisters burst out laughing as Jill asks them, “Naalala niyo ba yun?”
Known for her transparency, much of what went down behind-the-scenes appeared on her social media accounts later that evening — from the impromptu meeting she had with Senator Pacquiao and his wife (it was made at the request of her children) where she told Jinkee that she watches her exercise videos on Instagram, to the notes she took during, and the way she exited the pavillion barefoot.
The Vice President was not the only one whose family tagged along. The candidate who arrived before her was former Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales. In the portrait room, his sister Leida asked, “Are they doing this for all the candidates?” while his daughter Marie took photos.
Meanwhile, the team of former Foreign Affairs secretary Ernie Abella joked about the number of cameras pointed at their boss as he had his portraits taken, saying, “Konti lang yung camera, noh?”
Mayor Moreno Domagoso was every bit the political figure. Arriving at the med desk, an aide quickly placed a venti Starbucks coffee cup beside him. Entering his room, he immediately sat down by the TV, which was tuned to a CNN news report on the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
During the portrait session when he was asked to do a gesture he was known for, he said “Ano gusto mo?” before doing the “1” that’s become his campaign symbol, and the “2 joints” hand gesture which he went viral for on TikTok. While doing the pause, he joked, “Don’t panic, it’s organic!”
Senator Manny Pacquiao was the last arrival. With him were several entourage members clad in polo shirts bearing his “Man of Destiny” campaign slogan and his wife Jinkee. Her outfit was coordinated to the boxer-turned-policy maker’s royal blue; they head upstairs holding hands, bodyguards and MROs trailing behind. It took a while to enter his room, with several staff members asking to take selfies with him first.
The tight schedules meant that there was sparse time for the candidates to mingle and enter each others’ rooms, but backstage at the pavillion, the nine candidates had no choice. After the customary greetings, the candidates settled into their seats to wait for the producer’s briefing.
As backstage staff looked on and cameras clicked away, the candidates engaged in pockets of conversation made in low tones. On one side of the room, Robredo smiled and nodded at De Guzman as he enthusiastically gestured to explain something he was saying. Behind him, Mangondato and Gonzales sat quietly, preferring to keep to themselves. In the center, Domagoso cracked a joke about headcount — a joke that got some laughs from Montemayor and Pacquiao. To the very right, Senator Lacson and Abella exchanged pleasantries.
In between breaks, candidates mingled with their podium seatmates. Though this was the first official time that De Guzman and Moreno met in person, the latter patted the former on the back before alighting the stage, and were later spotted sharing laughs (and a piling of bananas). On the other side of the stage, Robredo and Pacquiao were also spotted talking.
After several rebuttals and some tense arguments between candidates involving track records and transparency, this year’s Presidential Debate clocked in at over two-and-a-half hours. And while this was not the sort of contest that crowns a victor, in the end, all nine present candidates were able to achieve what they came for: to make their platforms and plans heard by the Filipino people — which is one respectable step to helping them make an informed decision come May 9.