Public debates provide the electorate with sufficient information that allows them to exercise an informed political choice.
The rejection or hesitance of senatorial candidates to participate in public debates may be an indication that debates do not significantly affect voter preference or improve the candidate's chances of winning during elections.
Recently, the "Otso Diretso" opposition slate has publicly challenged the administration's senatorial ticket to a debate in order to determine their stand and positions on various issues. While PDP-LABAN and Hugpong ng Pagbabago candidates have expressed openness to the idea, there is no finality if the debate will push through.
The Fair Elections Act gives the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) the prerogative to require media networks to sponsor debates among Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates. However, the same is not encouraged for Senatorial candidates.
In 2018, Siquijor Representative Ramon Rocamora filed House Bill No. 8549 which seeks to require the participation of candidates in COMELEC-organized public debates, with non-attendance to be considered as election offense.
The conduct of debates for national elective positions are important in a democracy as:
• It allows voters to gain an insight on the candidates and their platforms
• It increases voter awareness on critical issues defining the elections.
• It allows voters to assess the candidate's strengths and weaknesses.
• It provides the voters with the platform to ask the hard questions to the candidates
In short, public debates provide the electorate with sufficient information that allows them to exercise an informed political choice. However, the absence of an enabling law mandating candidates to participate in COMELEC-sponsored debates provides candidates with a reason (scapegoat) to shun media-sponsored debates. Candidates should not be squarely blamed for their failure to show up in these debates as their schedule for the tight 90-day campaign period has long been planned and visits to different areas have already been logistically arranged. Furthermore, candidates should also be accorded sufficient time for debate preparation, as in the case of policy-making where lawmakers are provided with ample time to consult, study and assess the merits of a proposed legislation.
To my mind, what’s more important is that the clamor for national candidates to participate in debates should come primarily from us, the voting public, in the absence of existing legislation. Candidates will be forced to show up in public debates if we demand debate participation as a critical criterion in our selection of candidates.
There are 12 senatorial seats up for grabs in the 2019 Elections. We are not looking for clowns, stand-up comedians, singers, dancers and story tellers. We must demand for serious lawmakers equipped with competence and a good track record.
Public debates provide voters with an insight on the candidates’ qualifications. Hence, raising the ante for public debates will allow us to make an informed decision based on our own discernment and not based on fake news.