MANILA, Philippines--The gloves are off.
The presidential race is gathering steam, with Nacionalista Party standard-bearer Manuel Villar demanding to know from Liberal Party standard-bearer Benigno ?Noynoy? Aquino III if the latter had anything to show that he could deliver on promised reforms.
Incidentally, it was the first time Villar, a self-made billionaire with humble beginnings, showed up at a forum of presidential candidates.
The occasion was the ?presidential forum? held Saturday at the De La Salle Santiago Zobel School in Ayala Alabang, Muntinlupa City, where Villar and Bagumbayan Party standard-bearer Richard Gordon ganged up on Aquino, their fellow senator, and his purported lack of competence and experience to lead the nation.
Aquino?who continues to be No. 1 in the surveys although his lead over Villar is narrowing?is running on a platform of hope and change.
?We should show that we aspirants can really implement change. Meron ka na bang naipakita na may kakayahan kang magbago (Have you shown that you have the ability to effect change)?? Villar said, adding:
?But you can?t easily change society. All forces will go against you. The question: ?May nagawa ka na ba (Have you done anything)? Did [you] change something in the past? It is important to establish that when you say that you will change ... you are really capable [of doing it].?
From economy to Kris Aquino
Villar said no one would disagree that change was imperative: ?We really need change. The people are fed up. If you go [overseas, foreigners] will ask, ?What?s happening to your country???
Because the forum moderated by GMA-7 news anchor Mike Enriquez was not a debate, Aquino was not required to reply.
But Enriquez requested that questions from the audience be addressed to all four candidates?Villar, Aquino, Gordon and Lakas-Kampi-CMD standard-bearer Gilbert Teodoro.
The forum tackled such issues as education, health, the Mindanao peace problem, dismantling private armies, economy, the killing of journalists, the assets of government officials, the choice of running mate, advertising spending, the role of actress Kris Aquino in an Aquino presidency, the Hyatt 10, President Macapagal-Arroyo?s role in a Teodoro administration, surveys and platform of government.
It was organized by Friends in Art Inc., Ayala-Alabang Village Association, St. James Parish Council, Barangay Ayala-Alabang and GMA-7, and broadcast live nationwide by the network?s radio station dzBB and over the Internet.
The latest Social Weather Stations survey privately commissioned by a Villar ally and conducted on Dec. 27-28, 2009, showed that Aquino?s lead over Villar had been narrowed to 11 percent.
When Aquino?s turn to respond to certain issues came up, he managed to counterattack.
?Let?s all see our track records if what we?re saying jibes with what we do,? he said, adding that this was his answer to the question of being ampaw (hollow).
He also said it was ?easy? to mouth ?motherhood statements? and promise ?beautiful things? but doubtful that these could be fulfilled by his rivals if they were elected president.
Aquino cited the recently passed P1.4-trillion national budget.
He said that during the deliberations, his ?stomach ached and blood pressure shot up because of the attitude? of department secretaries who insisted on funding for their pet programs despite the questions raised by senators.
?I was the only one who stood up to [tell them], ?You?re not doing the right thing,?? Aquino said.
He said he had a 16-point platform of government and a candidacy based on issues, and that voters could check his website for the specifics.
Aquino said he wanted to level the playing field for the business community, improve tax collection efficiency by targeting smugglers, solve the ills in the education sector, particularly erroneous textbooks, lack of classrooms and dismal teacher-to-children ratio, and reform the judicial system.
?The bottom line is ... we can now dream again,? he said.
Fixing one?s town
Joining the fray, Gordon said he was ?very proud? of his own track record as mayor of Olongapo City, constitutional convention delegate, administrator of Subic Bay, tourism secretary, chair of the Philippine National Red Cross, and senator.
?The record of service is important. Can you really do your job? Before you left your province, have you fixed your town?? Gordon said, referring to Olongapo?s comeback after the damaging eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, when he was city mayor.
He said that instead of giving up in defeat, he rallied his people to dig themselves out of the disaster and even assisted other towns that were similarly devastated.
He attributed Olongapo?s success to effective governance and volunteerism.
Taking up the attack, Villar said: ?I agree with Senator Gordon that in the end, it is what you have done and demonstrated in the past that matters. The poor have never seen managerial competence as basis for electing a president.
?In all these elections, popularity is the sole basis. For decades now, we always use popularity and emotions as basis. It?s about time we used abilities and competence and experience. [Popularity as basis for election] has to stop. Let?s start now!?
How is Tarlac?
Gordon had earlier attacked Aquino at press forums, pointing out that the son of martyred opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. and People Power icon Corazon Aquino had never held an executive post.
Gordon had claimed that the Aquino family was given opportunities to make the nation great but ?regrettably failed to deliver.?
?How many more chances do you want? What is Noynoy Aquino?s ability in local government? He hasn?t been tested even as a barangay captain. Even in legislature, what law did he craft whose benefits are being felt by the people?? Gordon had said.
He had added that Aquino ?had in [his] family a president, a vice president, four senators, congressmen, governors?all the posts in Tarlac, but how is Tarlac??
Old vs new faces
A youth leader asked Aquino at the forum how he could be an advocate of change and of the alternative ?when the people around you were the same people with Erap (deposed President Joseph Estrada) and GMA (Ms Arroyo).?
Speaking in a mix of English and Filipino, Aquino explained that he was associated with or supported by former Palace officials because of their competence and expertise.
He said it was but normal to align oneself with people ?if there are competencies really demonstrated? by them.
Aquino cited the ?Hyatt 10,? a group of Cabinet officials who quit their posts in 2005 following the ?Hello Garci? wiretapping scandal that suggested massive fraud in the 2004 presidential election:
?For example, the group of Hyatt 10. They have experience already. Should we get new faces ... new graduates to be placed in departments [of government], so that it can be said that we have fresh faces??
Aquino said ?new graduates? needed at least two years to go through the learning curve.
His own platform
?It?s not right to say that a man who was prominent in the past is already sinful. We believe in the Bible. It?s written there that the sins of the father should not be visited upon the children,? he said, eliciting loud applause from the audience composed of high school students, teachers and parents.
While Villar and Gordon took turns sniping at Aquino, Teodoro concentrated on his own platform and his stance on issues.
The former defense secretary seized the opportunity to present his managerial skills and fitness to be president apparently as a way to boost his low survey ratings.
Teodoro was applauded for pledging to simplify government procedures?such as filing income tax returns?for Juan de la Cruz, and promising incentives for public and private employees and officials adhering to law.
While Aquino, his cousin, advocated judicial reform to stop the killing of journalists, Teodoro, a law graduate of Harvard University, advocated crime prevention and solution.
The first needs more police visibility and use of such equipment as CCTV cameras, while the second entails more resources in investigative capabilities to gather admissible evidence, he said.
He added that the certainty of punishment was also required.
?We need change. What kind of change do we want?? Teodoro said, pointing out that change should not be ?experimental? so as not to sacrifice basic services expected of any government.
?The Constitution institutionalized the bureaucracy, so that there is permanence of institutions of government ... even if we change political systems. We need a permanent and stable platform so that we can have a successful change,? he said.
Teodoro was again applauded when he said that without a strong foundation, the ship of state would be ?adrift like a ship without a rudder, propeller and heading nowhere.?
Gordon impressed the audience with his display of speaking skills and deep understanding of society?s ills?past and present.
He said ?people must be part of the process of change ... to know where they are heading.?
Villar was applauded for his goal of stamping out poverty.
He said he was spending so much on advertisements to ?level the playing field? because he had no siblings in the entertainment industry or an illustrious lineage.
When asked by Enriquez if he would try to recoup his campaign expenses once in office, Villar said: ?Wala na po ?yun. You can?t put a price on that?lifting people from poverty.?
The last question thrown at the candidates was if they would promise to return to the same house they were now living in after the six-year term, and if their net worth would not increase dramatically.
As expected, all answered in the affirmative.