Are Philippine political debates going the way of confrontational, reality television programs spawned by American talk show host Jerry Springer, who prods his guests to verbally and physically assault each other on the idiot box?
Some politicians are appalled not only by how much mud has been tossed between candidates during this campaign season but where these character assassinations have taken place—on news and public affairs shows on national television.
Even the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has taken note of what some commentators claim has become a disturbing and nasty trend in election debates. “Will bring this up in our discussions this week,” said Comelec Commissioner Grace Padaca, who declined to elaborate.
Squaring off two personalities who hold a grudge against each other has been the blueprint for success of Springer’s TV show, which focuses on personal disputes involving ordinary people. In a recent interview with US news website Huffington Post, Springer said that while people enjoyed watching his show, he admitted that his program was “stupid” and had “no redeeming social value.”
In a text message to the Inquirer, Sen. Serge Osmeña III said: “It is extremely disappointing to witness interviews and debates that have been allowed to degenerate into mudslinging and personal insults and public peeks into irrelevant family conflicts. Our nation has serious problems which need serious minds to come up with serious solutions.”
“We maintain that this campaign should be about programs of the government and not about personalities. We do not believe in negative campaigning,” said Sen. Franklin Drilon, campaign manager of the Team PNoy senatorial ticket.
Last week, a one-on-one debate between rivals Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and former President Joseph Estrada on ABS-CBN’s talk show, “Umagang Kay Ganda,” supposedly on issues confronting the nation’s capital, degenerated into an ugly exchange of barbs and personal attacks against each other’s children.
Lim and Estrada carried on their bitter tirade the following day in a debate sponsored by the University of the Philippines in Manila, where they ignored the host’s repeated pleas to stick to the issues concerning Manila’s residents and to hold their mudslinging in other venues.
Zubiri vs Pimentel
In a similar incident on the TV program “Mano-Mano ni Anthony Taberna” on Studio 23 of ABS-CBN, United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) senatorial candidate Juan Miguel Zubiri accused Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III of being a wife-beater.
Pimentel’s estranged wife, Jewel Lobaton, quickly issued a denial: “I categorically state that I have never claimed nor complained to Migz Zubiri that I was a battered wife. In the close to 12 years that we lived together, my husband, Koko Pimentel, has never ever physically hurt me,” said Lobaton, a relative of Zubiri.
Zubiri said in a statement he read on Sunday in a press forum in Baguio City: “It was not my intention to hurt her feelings and those of her children but I was merely echoing the sentiments that she shared with us.”
In a phone interview, Taberna said that he tried his best to keep his guests to stick to issues.
“I invited them because they had issues facing them. I tried to set a time limit or to calm them down but both (Estrada and Lim) were too insistent. On Zubiri’s charges, I myself was shocked, he volunteered that info. I did not ask him that,” Taberna said.
While he agreed that debates should focus on issues rather than personalities, Taberna said that the mudslinging had its benefits. It shows the “true colors” of the candidates, he said.
Navotas Rep. Tobias Tiangco, UNA’s campaign manager, does not see anything wrong in the lack of decorum and substance in the debates.
“Let the voters decide because they are the king. If the voters think that the candidates are acting out of line, they will make their opinion on election day. There has and will always be mudslinging in politics,” Tiangco said.
“Voters deserve better. I think people are thirsty for substantive debate and the candidates that can join substance with public speaking skills will be greatly appreciated,” said Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello.
“I expected the campaign to be on a higher level, especially in the election for the Senate. I thought it would be based on issues and platforms, not name-calling and mudslinging,” said San Juan Rep. Joseph Victor Ejercito, who accused Team PNoy of starting the mudslinging.
Ejercito, a senatorial candidate of the UNA, said that people with a short fuse like Lim tended to get heated in this type of debates. “Look at Lim. Whenever he is unable to answer your charges, he’ll threaten you, like a police bully,” said Ejercito, son of Estrada.
“It’s despicable but the stations love it. It’s up to them if this is their contribution to society,” said Sen. Vicente Sotto III.—With a report from Desiree Caluza, Inquirer Northern Luzon