ALL six candidates for vice president pledged to support the passage of an anti-dynasty law, overdue for nearly 30 years now, and to hold telecommunication companies accountable for slow Internet speeds.
But the candidates, particularly Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, also spent a lot of time grilling Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. about his father’s martial law regime.
“I will acknowledge every human rights abuse under every administration, or else we will repeat the mistakes and abuses of the past,” said Marcos, after being asked whether he was willing to apologize for human rights abuses during his father’s rule.
“But I can only apologize for myself...I cannot give back what I do not have,” Marcos said.
From their opening statements, it was Marcos who bore much of the pressure from the five other candidates and part of the crowd that CNN Philippines and Business Mirror had invited to the debate, held in the University of Sto. Tomas.
Despite occasional pauses when the moderators appealed for calm from hecklers, the debate covered all the topics the organizers had outlined. These included corruption, foreign policy, political dynasties, traffic and Internet connectivity.
It was the first and only debate for the vice presidential candidates. The next debate on April 24 will again be for the five presidential aspirants.
At various points, all six vice presidential candidates—all of them male senators, except for Rep. Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo—were asked to raise cards marked “Yes” or “No” to answer policy questions.
Is it time for Congress to pass a law against political dynasties? Yes, all six voted.
The 1987 Constitution, passed a year after Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was ousted in a popular uprising supported by the military, contains a proviso to prohibit political dynasties. But the Constitution also left it up to Congress to pass a law that would define and contain these dynasties.
That hasn’t happened yet.
As vice president, will you fight to reduce income taxes? Again, all six candidates voted “Yes,” although Sen. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan at first raised his “No” card.
All the six candidates also said they would help hold telecommunications companies more accountable for sluggish Internet speeds.
When asked whether they supported same-sex unions, they were again unanimous. No, all the six voted.
All six also agreed that the Philippines isn’t doing enough to address the urgent challenges posed by climate change.
The only time they did not vote unanimously was when they were asked if they harbored any plan to run for president. No, five said. Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV declined to answer.
In the last three weeks, Marcos has caught up to survey frontrunner Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero. The latest Pulse Asia survey, held among 4,000 voters from March 15 to 20, showed the two senators tied, with 25 percent each.
The latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) mobile survey, with 757 respondents last March 31 and an error margin of plus-minus four percent, had Escudero in the lead with 31 percent, followed by Marcos with 26 percent, and Robredo with 25 percent.
Among the most heated portions of the debate was when Cayetano went toe to toe against Marcos on the issue of corruption.
Cayetano repeatedly mentioned the political will that he and his presidential candidate, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, have banked on as their main campaign message, along with the elimination of crime in three to six months.
When asked about the most appropriate penalty for graft and corruption, Cayetano said: “What matters is not the penalty, but the certainty that the law will be enforced. If you are caught committing corruption, you should be punished.”
Cayetano, the Senate majority leader, is 45. He began his political career in 1992 while still a law student, when he was elected as a municipal councilor in Taguig. He has also served as vice mayor of Taguig, congressman of Taguig-Pateros, and was first elected to the Senate in 2010.
He studied political science in the University of the Philippines, before finishing law in 1997.
Until recently, Escudero was the lone frontrunner in the voter preference surveys Pulse Asia and SWS conducted.
Unlike Marcos and Cayetano, he did not get grilled much in the debate, except for one point when Robredo asked him what, in his many years as a legislator, he had done to fight the Priority Development Assistance Funds, more commonly known as the pork barrel.
In the even tone that has become his signature speaking style, Escudero began by saying that if elected as vice president, he would offer a leadership that will benefit everyone. It will be “pantay at parehas” or equitable, he said.
Escudero, 46, studied law in the University of the Philppines and obtained a master’s degree in international and comparative law from Georgetown Law Center in 1996. He has held elective office since 1998, when he won his first term as congressman of the first district of Sorsogon, according to his bio on the Senate website.
He was elected to the Senate in 2007.
Last night, he said that corruption would be minimized if government workers’ discretion over transactions was reduced. He also pointed to the need to make the poor feel the benefits of economic growth, saying there was no logic in charging poor farmers for irrigation, when car owners get to use the roads for free.
The oldest among the candidates at 68, Sen. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan II focused his opening statement on his years spent as a soldier, rebel, then senator.
“I will bring to the vice presidency the courage of my convictions,” he said.
Honasan studied economics in the University of the Philippines before entering the Philippine Military Academy. According to his Senate bio, he also obtained a master’s degree in business management from the Asiatn Institute of Management in 1981.
He was first elected to the Senate in 1995, then again in 2001 and 2007. So far, he has obtained the lowest or second lowest survey ratings among the vice presidential candidates, even when his running mate, Vice President Jejomar Binay, was in the top two spots last year.
He was the only candidate to qualify his response to the question on abolishing political dynasties. “First, we need to define what a political dynasty is,” he said. “Let’s not make hasty decisions. Do dynasties serve the public interest or not? We need to find out.”
Five minutes into the debate, there were signs Marcos was in for a tough night. Hecklers interrupted his opening remarks before he could finish his first sentence, but he managed to continue after the moderators restored order.
At one point, the senator urged voters not to believe campaign promises that they would get money if he is elected as vice president. “Wala pong kinalaman ang pamilyang Marcos diyan (The Marcos family has nothing to do with that),” he said.
Marcos, 58, has held elective office continuously since 1981, when he became vice governor of Ilocos Norte. The only years when he did not hold public office were in 1986 to 1992, those years immediately after Martial Law, and in 1995 to 1998. He was elected to the Senate in 2007 and 2010.
Marcos studied studied social studies in Oxford University. He also did coursework in business administration in the Wharton School of Business, but did not finish his MBA, according to his Senate bio.
Apart from Cayetano, Robredo also traded words with him last night. Robredo said it wasn’t enough for Marcos to acknowledge the wealth stolen from the people. “It should be returned,” she said.
Marcos retorted that it was the government led by the Liberal Party that was delaying compensation for human rights victims.
That exchange with Marcos was among the few heated moments that involved Robredo, who otherwise focused on her congressional record and her running mate Manuel “Mar” Roxas II’s pledge to continue reforms started by this administration.
“What is important is that our leaders must be free from corruption,” Robredo said. She pointed out that all of her earliest bills after being elected to Congress in 2013 focused on fighting corruption, including a different version of the Freedom of Information Bill that would not be demand-driven, but would “require government to make all public documents available.”
Robredo, who is turning 52 later this month, has spent the least time in government among all the vice presidential candidates. She is serving her first term in the Lower House, representing the third district of Camarines Sur.
She studied economics in the University of the Philippines before obtaining a degree in law. At the time of her husband Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo’s death in 2012, she was working for Saligan, which offered legal aid “to the poor and marginalized,” according to her campaign website.
Robredo said there was a need to keep politics away from the appointment of judges and justices; pass a law that will define political dynasties and make political opportunity open to all; and address the lack of regulation, competition and infrastructure that keeps Internet connectivity slow.
“I feel as though my whole life has been in preparation for this,” she said in her closing statement. “I am excited to win, not for myself, but our constituents who hope for someone who will not forsake them. As a mother, I will not neglect my children and the country. May the best woman win.”
Among the six candidates, Senator Trillanes is the only one without a formal running mate, although his campaign materials mention Sen. Grace Poe’s presidential bid.
He spoke of the need to raise public workers’ salaries as one way to prevent corruption, as well as the seven years he spent behind bars after leading the Oakwood mutiny in 2003.
He said he and his fellow soldiers “spoke up against corruption not because of politics, but because we love our country.”
Trillanes, 44, graduated from the Philippine Military Academy in 1995, served in the Navy, and obtained a master’s degree in public administration from the University of the Philippines in 2005. (He was granted amnesty in 2010 by President Benigno Aquino III, three years after being elected to the Senate.)
In last night’s debate, he challenged Senator Cayetano after the latter defended Duterte’s pledge to eliminate crime in three to six months.
Cayetano said: “We can use crime-fighting equipment, but without leadership and resolve, nothing will happen. What happened in Davao can be done in the entire country.” He then challenged the other candidates: “What are your plans for making the Philippines safe?”
Trillanes pointed out that despite having served as mayor for more than 20 years, Duterte has not eliminated crime in Davao City. “Huwag tayong mag-bolahan dito. (Let’s not lie to each other.) It’s not true that there is no crime in Davao or in Taguig. It’s not fair to give our constituents false hopes.”