Since the 90-day official presidential campaign period kicked off in February, Filipinos have been treated to a series of presidential “debates.” These are but media forums, rather than “debates,” strictly speaking, for a “debate,” as we know it, is a formal public discussion in which two opposing sides argue against each other the validity or invalidity of a particular proposition. In the US presidential system, a presidential debate usually involves two candidates from two opposing parties; they try to put forward their party positions to win the audience’s vote.

We have improved on this. Starting with 97 presidential certificates last October, the Commission on Elections pruned this number to ten on January 25, and since then nine of them have appeared in these “debates.” This is supposed to allow the candidates to show their fitness for the nation’s highest office. How many of them are able to achieve this, is anybody’s guess.

The opinion surveys, which I tend to question but which no candidate rejects, seem to give the candidate who has not been participating in these “debates” a reported lead of over 50 percent over all the others, despite the fact that almost everybody else, including some priests and religious, who are not supposed to get involved, are throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at this candidate.

What does this tell us then? That these “debates” are not of much help? That they need to be retooled? We shall go back to this.

At the start of the season, I expressed the fear that, as in previous elections, we might yet produce another minority-elected president, one elected by less than 50 percent plus one of the nation’s votes. Since 1969, we have not elected a majority president. Now, even my neighbor’s driver is telling me that for the first time in so many years, the young voters and the CDE classes could elect a president by landslide.

This fear is apparently shared by the various presidential camps, and it has led them to throw all their garbage at former Senator Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos, Jr. who has reportedly taken a commanding lead. The wonder of it all is that as the candidate gets pummeled by his late father’s ideological and political enemies and their progeny, he seems to be gaining greater strength or at least holding fast, instead of losing it. His adversaries seem to be procuring negative results for themselves, and positive results for their nemesis. This reminds me of Lee Kuan Yew’s wise words many years ago: “To name the enemy is to make him.”

I would like to see Marcos Jr. reconsider his position and join the debate, but it should be an honest, serious and meaningful debate—accent on honest, serious and meaningful debate. This means a change in format and content. Questions asked by nonpartisan and impartial moderators should enable the candidates to present their worldview and programs of government as they define and respond to the real problems of the society and the state. The forum should produce such a serious discussion of the issues and draw as big a TV audience as possible so that a candidate who does not show up will feel he has lost a lot for not showing up. As of now, no one is saying Marcos Jr. has lost or is losing anything for not showing up.

Despite the obvious difficulties in having ten, rather than just two, candidates on stage, I would like to see Marcos Jr. participate, but I would like to see him and the other candidates respond to questions that really matter to the nation’s survival and the national interest rather than just air their personal grievances and prejudices. There should be no place for trivia, pettifogging, name-calling or personal abuse in this debate.

In a recent forum, the candidates were asked: where were you and what were you doing when Covid-19 struck? I thought this was a question you might ask someone who had just tested positive for Covid-19, but not a presidential candidate. What does it matter what a candidate was doing when Covid-19 struck? What Filipinos would like to know is what the candidate thinks of the way President Duterte and Health Secretary Duque have handled the pandemic, and how differently he or she would have handled it if he or she were the president?

As the nation and the world await the end of Covid-19, we need to be assured that we can turn the page under a more caring, more sincere and more efficient government after two years of a costly and ruinous pandemic. Those seeking to lead us should be able to say where they propose to take us, by what means, and at what rate of success, in the next six years. In the next forum, this question must be asked.

Second question. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put us at the brink of a larger and more dangerous (possibly nuclear) war. Yet, we must all know this is not a cause uncaused; it is the result of a long history of political manipulations and botched agreements. What can our presidential candidates say or do to assure us that a new world order, based on peaceful cooperation and mutual respect for sovereign rights, is being worked out, and that we have our own distinct role in it?

Candidates are asked what they would do, if elected, to solve a problem whose solution lies beyond the scope of their presidential powers? One freewheeling candidate says he would overhaul the socio-economic system and the constitutional order, and none of those listening to him on stage bothers to point out he’s talking nonsense—it’s all beyond the constitutional mandate of a president. Under the 1987 Constitution, the President does not even have the power to propose an amendment to, or a revision of the Constitution; this is left to the Filipino people and the Congress. And yet some candidates give you the impression that they could and would rewrite everything, if elected.

In 1972, Ferdinand Marcos called out the armed forces and declared martial law to prevent the communists from taking over. He succeeded in this. But in 1986, he was deposed by his own military at the EDSA uprising, and flown into Hawaii by the US Air Force on behalf of the Aquino revolutionary government. Cory then released all communist prisoners, and when Marcos died in exile in1989, they were all back in Utrecht or in the hills, fighting the government. Since then, Marcos’s old enemies have poured out into the streets, year after year, to denounce his martial law proclamation of September 21, 1972 as a day of infamy for Filipinos. The naked plot to turn the Philippines into a communist state is now completely forgotten; the constitutional response to prevent it from happening has now become the unforgivable crime against the Filipinos.

This is revisionism of the first order. Who is responsible for it? Our people, especially the young generation, must decide for themselves whether it was a mistake for us to resist the communist advance in the 70’s and whether we must support it now. The Cold War has ended, and China, while remaining communist, has become the world’s fastest-growing economic power. But this is not the triumph of communism; it is rather the success of a communist country that has opted to adopt the philosophy, policies and practices of the free market system.

In this election, our presidential candidates should tell us how far they will go—against all threats and temptations— to uphold and defend our liberal democratic system.

Under President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd, the President used the pork barrel to induce the members of the House to enact an anti-Catholic and unconstitutional Reproductive Health Law, which the Supreme Court declared “not unconstitutional” despite its clear violation of the pro-life provisions of the Constitution. Aquino also paid off 19 senator-judges (P50 million and above for each) to convict and remove Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona on a single impeachment charge, based on illegally procured evidence. Only three senator-judges—Sen. Bongbong Marcos, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, and the late Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago—were untouched by the bribe. Marcos Jr. and Miriam voted to acquit Corona, together with the late Joker Arroyo, even though Joker also got some funds that had nothing to do with the Corona case. Lacson voted with the majority to convict and remove the Chief Justice.

None of the senator-judges disputed Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s September 25, 2013 disclosure of this crime on the floor of the Senate. In my book, All Is Grace, (Solidaridad Publishing, Manila, and Europe Books, London, 2021), I say this bribery should have voided the Corona impeachment trial, led to Aquino’s impeachment or ouster, the permanent disqualification of the 19 senator-judges from public office, and the dissolution of the Senate. None of these happened. But in this election, shouldn’t the presidential candidates tell us how they intend, if elected, to deal with the unpunished parties?

Under President Duterte, the tripartite system of government virtually ceased to exist. Malacañang took virtual control of the Legislative and Judiciary Departments. Duterte handpicked the leaders of the two Houses of Congress, and removed Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno not through an impeachment process as required by the Constitution, but through the simple expedient of a “Quo Warranto” proceeding at the Solicitor-General’s initiative. We need to hear from our presidential candidates how they intend, if elected, to restore the normal functioning of our tripartite system of government.

The separation of Church and State is sacred and sacrosanct. But there is always an attempt, even now, on the part of some politicians and some churchmen to cross the line that separates the two. We need to hear from our presidential candidates whether or not they understand this principle of separation clearly, and how they can make sure it is never breached.

We also need to hear from our candidates the simple and honest truth about their private moral lives, particularly their marriage and their respective families.