The Commission on Elections (Comelec)'s presidential debates last March 19 saw nine out of 10 presidential candidates in action.
In attendance at the "PiliPinas Debates: The Turning Point" at the Sofitel Harbor Garden Tent in Pasay were: Ernesto Abella, Leody de Guzman, Francisco "Isko Moreno" Domagoso, Norberto Gonzales, Ping Lacson, Faisal Mangondato, Jose Montemayor, Manny Pacquiao, and Leni Robredo.
Only Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. declined to participate, with his spokesman Vic Rodriguez saying that they'll honor their "commitment" to their supporters to be with them "on the field on this day."
Comelec left an empty podium for Marcos Jr., with moderator Luchi Cruz-Valdes reiterating the candidate's absence on a number of instances during the program.
"But Mr. Marcos will not be joining this debate," Valdes said. "It was his decision not to participate. And because of that, he's lost his chance to present his program of government and platform."
Here are a few highlights from the debate.
On continuing 'Build, Build, Build'
When asked if the Duterte administration's flagship infrastructure program "Build, Build, Build" was a success and if they would continue it, seven said yes, one was critical of it, and another was on the fence.
"I will continue that and push it beyond building infrastructures," Abella said, calling it a "success." He also vowed to "build, build, build" the next generation via education with a focus on mathematics and sciences.
Domagoso said that in continuing the program, he also plans to upscale his programs in his bailiwick of Manila City.
"We'll build more housing, better schools, more hospitals, more harvest facilities...and more sources of energy for stability," he said.
Lacson reiterated his long-proposed private and public partnership (PPP) to be able to continue the government's infrastructure programs in light of the country's record P12 trillion outstanding debt.
"Sa tanong na kung matagumpay ba, out of 118 projects, ang na-accomplish lang ay 12," he said. "So, kayo na po ang humusga kung matagumpay ba."
Nevertheless, Lacson said he is ready to continue the program by improving on it.
"Kung itutuloy? Yes. Pero gawin nating better, i-boost natin, at dapat bolder," said Lacson.
Robredo said she'll also put emphasis on PPP instead of loans via the official development assistance or ODA.
"Pero for PPP to succeed," she said, "kailangan pong isiguro natin na inayos natin ang pamahalaan para mas maraming investors ang tumiwala na mag-invest sa atin."
The vice president also wants to focus on four areas: rural development in infrastructure, transportation, water resource management, and climate resilient infrastructure.
For Montemayor, meanwhile, "It's not a question kung itutuloy," saying that it should be done as there's no choice due to current contractual obligations.
"Now, siguraduhin nating mabuti na napupunta sa tama iyan," he said.
Pacquiao, for his part, said it's "unfair" to call it unsuccessful. He also vowed to continue the program while mentioning his housing project platform.
"Marami pa po talagang kailangan i-develop sa Mindanao area," he said.
Mangondato said he'll continue the program, but questioned if it's really for the benefit of the masses.
De Guzman said that "generally," the program was a failure, citing the country's record outstanding debt, even saying it could reach P13.4 trillion once Duterte's term ends.
"Naging problema rin dahil sa panahon ng pandemya, naging business as usual...at napabayaan ang paggastos sa COVID-19," he said.
Gonzales, meanwhile, said he'll look into the direction and rationale behind the program first before picking up where it left off.
"Titingnan ko po kung ang Build, Build, Build ay may pantay-pantay na pagtingin,” he said.
Marcoses' P203 billion estate tax
At one point, De Guzman was talking about providing cash aid to farmers amid rising prices of fertilizers, when Domagoso intervened.
"Iyong isang pamilyang may utang na P203 billion na estate tax, sisiguraduhin nating sisingilin ko iyon," he said. "Kukunin iyon, ibibigay sa magsasaka, sa driver, bilang ayuda ng taumbayang nangangailangan ng tulong ngayon."
The Manila mayor earlier affirmed that the Bureau of Internal Revenue confirmed to their camp that it sent a written demand to the Marcoses regarding their estate tax liabilities amounting to P203.8 billion.
The amount was originally worth P23 billion based on a 1997 Supreme Court ruling affirming a Court of Appeals decision, saying it was final and "unappealable." The Presidential Commission on Good Government, created to recover the alleged ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses, also said that “the judgment on the case had become final and executory.”
Marcos Jr. has since dismissed the Domagoso camp's announcement, backed by an SC ruling, as "fake news."
Valdes took note of Marcos Jr.'s absence in the debate, saying, "Hindi po natin masasagot ang komentong iyan."
Lacson, then, raised his hand to back Domagoso's pronouncement.
"Tama iyon," he said, noting that they've passed many tax packages but only collected about P101 billion. "Merong P203 billion nga na sisingilin lang, bakit ayaw singilin ng BIR?"
Robredo also chimed in to back Domagoso and Lacson, as chuckles can be heard on the background.
"Ayaw nating i-suspend iyong excise tax kahit napakataas ng langis," she said, adding that ayuda for drivers are a measly P200 per head.
"Pag nasingil natin ito," pertaining to the Marcoses' estate tax, "hindi na natin kailangang tipirin iyong ating mga kababayan."
De Guzman later acknowledged Domagoso and bantered with him. "Sang-ayon din ako pare, kailangan din natin kunin iyang P203 billion na iyan," as they laughed together, prompting Valdes to remind them about the debate rules of not talking with fellow candidates.
Montemayor's false claims on IATF, COVID-19 vaccines
Montemayor also made a number of false claims during the debates. He falsely claimed that the Inter-Agency Task Force is headed only by lawyers. The IATF in fact is headed by no less than the Department of Health (DOH), co-chaired by the Office of the Cabinet Secretary and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Members include departments and executive offices, as well as the police, the military, and local government units.
"Tandaan niyo ha, ang IATF, ang mga nangunguna diyan, mga abogado, and the issue is health," he said.
Domagoso was quick to correct Montemayor.
"With all due respect to Mr. Montemayor, I think he's not aware that IATF is also supported and composed of medical frontliners and specialists in healthcare," he said. "Para lang alam niya, kasi baka malito at maligaw ang ating mga kababayan."
"Kami po, mga local government unit, mga IATF, mga doktor, specialists, in their respective fields. Kaya mali po iyong puro abogado lang. Just for the record, unfair po iyan sa IATF," he added.
Montemayor attempted to respond to him, saying he was "alluded to," only for Domagoso to say that he "just corrected" him.
Montemayor again stated an untruth when the candidates were asked how they'll ensure enough jobs and quality education.
At that point, Montemayor lamented that workers supposedly have low morale because of the COVID-19 vaccination card requirement. Montemayor did not specify where he based the statement.
"Kahit na pagandahin natin ang sitwasyon, napakababa ng motivation ng ating workers. Alam niyo kung bakit? Vaccination card," he said, adding that 70 million Filipinos are supposedly being "harrassed" whenever they're asked to present their vaccination cards.
“When in fact, ang mismong vaccination will expose you to infection," the lawyer and cardiologist falsely claimed.
Health authorities worldwide have time and again said that COVID-19 vaccines don't cause infection.
"The vaccine for COVID-19 cannot and will not give you COVID-19," Johns Hopkins Medicine, a leading institution of physicians and scientists, said in its website. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said COVID-19 vaccines are "safe and effective."
Even the country's very own DOH has said COVID-19 vaccines reduce the risk of getting severe symptoms.