April Fools’ Day came early for the Philippines in the form of the second of three Commission on Elections (Comelec)-organized presidential debates, held last March 20 at the University of the Philippines – Cebu. This is the first set of Comelec debates held since 1992, and it is a wonder that there was a 24-year hiatus given the sheer importance of events such as this, and the undeniable value they hold for the average Filipino.
This second debate greatly differed from the first, which was held a month prior, in that it was more interactive. Not only did the format allow presidentiables to address questions from the panelists, but they were also allowed to rebut and react to each other’s arguments. Rebut and react they did, and extensively so. Before long, there was mudslinging, blaming, and name-calling left and right on the four-part stage as millions of Filipinos watched live as part of the audience or over television sets and livestream videos.
But really, at this point, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone still surprised at this spectacle. Our presidential candidates’ antics bordered on the absurd, like delaying the entire event for over an hour in protest of a rule set in place months ago and applied in the first debate. But then again, we do live in a country where laws are bent at will.
It was obvious that there was more mudslinging than substance in the last debate, which is indicative not just of the quality of candidates we do have, but also of what the audience demands — the drama, the grit, the spectacle of our leaders squabbling over each other. But in all of this we tend to forget that how silly they are is a reflection of how silly we are.
We are a country that condemns abortion because all life is sacred but, in the same breath, condones and even lauds a candidate who brags about his willingness to kill a human being. We are a country that ousted a president guilty of corruption and jueteng only to reinstate him to power as the mayor of the country’s capital a decade later. We are a country that fought against a dictator to reclaim a freedom we are also willing to give up for another dictator who promises us peace in three to six months, because many of us do not possess the discipline to follow the rules by our own volition.
However, it’s all fun, games, and Twitter memes until we remember that one of these people we mock and find entertainment in may very well lead the near 100 million Filipinos for the next six years.
It is good that these debates are engaging us, as an engaged citizenry is essential in any working democracy. But our involvement is shallow. We’re so easily entertained by their antics and revel in all of this chaos while, at the same time, complaining about them as well. Despite all of this we consistently rank among the world’s happiest people, but one must question if resilience is all there is to it.
We need to demand more from our leaders. We need to ask good questions, challenge their claims, and be more critical of their statements. It’s good that we find enjoyment in all of this chaos, but the more we treat this like a joke, the more our leaders will act like it.