At the Commission on Election (Comelec)'s first "PiliPinas Debates: The Turning Point" vice presidential debate last Mar. 20, seven out of nine candidates have put their wits and personality to the test.
In attendance at the Sofitel Harbor Garden Tent in Pasay were Walden Bello, Rizalito David, Manny Lopez, Dr. Willie Ong, Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, Carlos Serapio, and Sen. Tito Sotto.
Buhay Party-list Rep. Lito Atienza has formally declined Comelec's invitation due to medical reasons.
Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio was also a no-show, just like her running mate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. Duterte-Carpio previously told reporters that she had "already decided" to go on with her campaign without joining debates.
Comelec left an empty podium for Atienza and Duterte-Carpio to denote their non-attendance, though moderator Ruth Cabral put more emphasis on the latter's absence.
"Mayor Sara did not confirm her participation," Cabral said. "Desisyon niya po na hindi sumali sa debate. Nawalan din siya ng pagkakataon na ipaabot sa publiko ang kanyang programa at plataporma."
Here are a few highlights from the first of two vice presidential debates.
Bello causes stir
Bello has gone rogue and caused quite a stir during the debates.
When they were asked what societal issues need to be addressed through new laws, he used his 90 seconds to rant about Marcos Jr. and Duterte-Carpio for skipping the debates.
"I hesitate to answer that question because this is becoming a big joke," Bello told moderator Cabral, adding that the Commission on Elections should do more than taking away e-rally privileges as penalty for being absent.
"My God, ang hina ho noon! We need stronger penalties for these people. This is so undemocratic," according to Bello, saying he's "tempted" to walk out as they're "just making fools of ourselves."
He urged the poll body to slap the tandem with a fine of P203 billion, the same amount as the Marcoses' unpaid estate taxes.
The sociology professor, who said he's "so pissed off," even dropped an F-bomb later on as the two "jokers" that are Marcos Jr. and Duterte-Carpio are "spitting in the face of the Filipino people."
Later on, Bello crossed swords with Pangilinan as he questioned the latter's advocacy for farmers. He asked why Pangilinan abstained from voting against the Rice Tariffication Act.
"Did you go to the CR when that happened?" Bello sarcastically asked Pangilinan. "Hindi ho maaari iyan. You cannot go to the CR on a very decisive vote like that."
Signed in 2019, the measure removes quantitative restrictions on rice imports from Southeast Asian neighbors and would just be slapped with a 35% tariff instead. While beneficial to Filipino consumers, the law is detrimental to local rice farmers and the entire rice industry as foreign competitors would have the upper hand.
"I had reservations precisely, supporting the measure, and that’s precisely why I abstained," Pangilinan said, adding that they moved to amend the law to allow for cash assistance and vowed to amend it again to increase allocation of the tariff collected that will directly support farmers and fisherfolk.
But the dissatisfied Bello doubled down on his criticisms against Pangilinan's abstain vote.
"He failed to oppose it. Kunyari raw may doubts siya," he said. "This is crazy!"
Pangilinan dismissed Bello, saying he pushed for the Sagip Saka Act, which mandates national and local governments that they can already buy directly from rice farmers.
Bello told him twice, "You should have opposed it."
But with no time left already, Pangilinan ended with: “If you disagree with my vote, well, then let us learn to agree to disagree."
Later on, the VP bets were asked if having a single anti-corruption agency is better, to which Bello asked if he may answer in any way he wants.
He gave Marcos Jr. and Duterte-Carpio yet another shout-out, as he started to sing Frank Sinatra's Where Are You?, but revised some of its lyrics.
"Where are you? Where did you go without me? I thought you cared about me. Where are you? Nasaan ka? Nasaan ang pera? Ibalik mo na ang pera, ibalik mo na," he sang.
"That’s for Marcos Jr., P203 billion, you owe it to the Filipino people. Give it back," he said.
At one point, Bello also objected to Cabral giving him a fair warning to not directly ask rival candidates questions.
"I wasn't addressing it to him, I was addressing it to you," he said, "so that you could address it to him."
When Cabral gave a clarification, he responded with, "That's right, to you, to you, me," as he waved his hands in dismay.
Other candidates also addressed Duterte-Carpio’s absence.
“Natutuwa ako sa mga sagot ng aking mga kasama. Kaya lang nalulungkot ako na yung nangunguna sa survey, di natin marinig kung ano ang kanyang opinion hingil sa bagay na ito,” David said during one segment.
“Sana nandidito si Inday Sara para masabi niya naman mga nais niya sabihin. Kami nagtatagisan ng talino dito pero paghahatian daw namin 50% ng boto. Tuwang-tuwa siya nakaupo lang siya.”
“Inday Sara, dumayo ka naman, dumalo ka naman. Gusto namin ma-kamayan ka man lang,” he called.
Pangilinan also noted the absence, likening the debates to “panliligaw.”
“Alam mo kaming mga kandidato, lumiligaw kami. Lumiligaw kami ng kandidato. Pag lumiligaw, dapat humaharap. Ako, may tatlong anak, pag may lumiligaw sa aking anak. Dapat humarap,” the senator said.
“Respetuhin ang aking anak, respetuhin ang mga magulang. Pag hindi humaharap, nirerespeto ba kami? Kung kayong mga botante, pag hindi humaharap, nirerespeto ba kayo?” he added.
In addition, Bello called out Duterte-Carpio while answering a question on societal issues that need to be addressed with policies and laws.
After the debate, the Partido Lakas ng Masa candidate later tweeted about why he sang a song to Marcos Jr. and Duterte-Carpio.
“I was looking for Sara. I don’t know where she went so I sang her a song. Maybe she can hear it and come to the next debates, Bello said.
I was both extremely frustrated and happy I got the chance to sing. Next time, it will be two songs! pic.twitter.com/GSX5weIrBh— Walden Bello (@WaldenBello) March 20, 2022
Earlier in the day, Duterte-Carpio shared photos of a UniTeam rally in Bulacan. The tandem also held a rally in Malabon in the afternoon.
Providing financial aid to Filipinos amid fuel price hike
On Mar. 16, President Rodrigo Duterte approved the Department of Finance’s proposal that would provide a monthly financial aid of P200 to households amid the rising fuel prices. During the debates, the VP aspirants all said that this was not enough, adding that they would push for suspending the excise tax on oil instead.
“Pag sinuspend mo na ang fuel excise tax, mababawasan ng P10, P6, P5 kada litro, kaagad-agad mararamdaman ng ating mga kababayan yan,” Pangilinan said, proposing to release a P500 million subsidy to farmers and fisherfolk and P2.5 billion fuel subsidy to the transport sector.
Sotto added that the minimum wage in Metro Manila should also be raised to deal with the rising prices.
“Gawin nating P1,000 ang minimum wage sa NCR. Yung mga employers—siguradong may papalag—edi bigyan natin ng tax break. Di baleng ang gobyerno ang maghirap, wag lang ang kababayan. Sanay na ang gobyerno mangutang,” the Senate President said.
Bello, for his part, was pleasantly surprised about a candidate echoing his and running mate Ka Leody De Guzman’s calls to raise the minimum wage. He said that the government should “freeze” payments on non-securitized foreign debt on top of suspending the excise tax and VAT on oil.
“Diyan nabubuhos yung [pera] ng gobyerno eh. 20% of the budget goes to paying off debt. This is P1 trillion,” he said.
“Kailangan, especially in an emergency, na we circulate that back to the country. Andaming sources of revenue that we can get, but what the government did binabaan yung income tax ng korporasyon, brought it down from 30% to 20%. Wrong priorities talaga ito.”
Meanwhile, David questioned the taxes put on fuel. “Imagine mo yung VAT, yung isang tax na ipinatong sa presyo ng gasolina, tinatax ka ulit pag kinarga mo na sa sasakyan. Anong klase naman yan? Dalawang tax sa iisang produkto.”
“Dapat buhusan na natin ng pera yung mga maliliit na negosyo tutal nanakawin din naman ng pulitiko, eh ibigay na natin na diretso sa maliliit na negosyo,” he said.
Lopez also questioned the spike in local fuel prices, calling it “speculative.”
“If we base it on the supply-demand analysis, wala pong basehan yan,” he said. “[Russian oil] only represents 10% of global supply of crude oil.
“Ang local pump prices ay walang basehan sapagkat meron din tayong 60 to 90 days na istrategic reserves ng oil. Pwede po nilang gamitin yan. Binili nila yan at the time na $70 ang price ng crude oil based on the price index. Di pwedeng automatic na taasan nila yan sapagkat matagal ang supply chain niyan,” David added.
Ong cited Manila Mayor Isko Moreno’s work in Manila, claiming residents have received subsidies as early as February.
He said: “Laging maaga yung mga ayuda niya. Expect natin tataas yung bilihin so dapat suportahan yung agriculture, food security natin at focus tayo sa renewable energy dahil mas mura ito in the long run. Pero puno’t dulo nito ang pandemic parin.”
COVID-19 response moving forward
In dealing with COVID-19 and future public health crises moving forward, Pangilinan believes that good governance is key.
"Kung nariyan pa rin ang mga kurakot at incompetent na nagpapatakbo ng ating COVID-19 response, magkakaproblema tayo," he said. "Kailangan tanggalin na sila ngayon pa lang at hanapan ng mga kapalit na mahusay at tapat sa panunungkulan."
Ong, meanwhile, warned the possibility of another surge in the Philippines in a few months' time, citing the situation in the neighboring Hong Kong and Vietnam. He said that as early as now, infectious disease hospitals must be erected, as present facilities couldn't afford to be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
"Puwede rin tayo gumawa ng Center for Disease Control natin," he said.
Sotto said he's batting for local production of COVID-19 vaccines, personal protective equipment, and other medical paraphernalia.
"Para matigil na iyong importation," he said "Iyon ang dapat na asikasuhin ng gobyerno na tayo na nagpo-produce nitong mga ito," adding that healthcare workers, even at the barangay level, should have higher wages.
For Serapio, research and development should be the priority to address future pandemics moving forward, lamenting that in the budget passed by the Congress, P1.3 billion went to roads and infrastructure.
"They've only appropriated P10 million for research and development and another P15 million for computational or big data analysis," he said, adding that he'll also push for an "organic-based, natural response" to the pandemic.
Bello said a "participatory" approach is needed in which the opinions of the medical community are prioritized, "instead of seeing them as enemies."
He described the Duterte administration's performance as "quite dismal," citing the country's COVID-19 tally of over three million cases and 55,000 deaths.
"Had the government had a better approach, hindi militaristic, the infections rates and the deaths could've been reduced by half," he said. "Napaka-unprepared."
David also wanted stakeholders from different sectors to coordinate with the scientific community in order have a "consensus" in managing the COVID-19 crisis, as well as producing more doctors with the help of more scholarship grants.