By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
DAGUPAN CITY, PANGASINAN–For one last day, all roads in the 2016 race for Malacañang will converge here.
At a basketball-court-sized covered quadrangle in the center of the Phinma University of Pangasinan, lights, columns, speakers and streamers have risen over the stage that will bring together Jejomar Binay, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Rodrigo Duterte, Grace Poe and Mar Roxas for a final appeal to voters.
ABS-CBN technicians and set assembly crews were the first at the campus early Thursday, selecting and securing spots for their set-ups in Sunday’s big event.
Students at the U-Pang continued on with their classes, occasionally sneaking glances at the court and casually passing through the piles of equipment as if no hauling was going on.
Still absent are the touches of politics that will pervade this area during the weekend. No colors, posters or supporters.
But the school residents know all eyes will be on their school when all these arrive, more so the objects of all this support.
At a stairway, one student watches snippets of the last Comelec-sponsored debate on his phone. A duo of communication majors go around the school’s food court asking people they could interview their expectations on how the presidential candidates will perform.
Much indeed hangs on the April 24 debate hosted by ABS-CBN and the Manila Bulletin.
The campaign has gone on overdrive in its last 3 weeks. In some ways it has gone for the worse.
With what seems to be a growing lead by the survey frontrunner, the exchanges between the candidates have gone more personal. Tirades on character and verbal slips have taken the lead over plans and programs.
The world has now noticed the Philippine elections, and not just as a turning point for the Aquino administration.
Instead, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s viral remarks on rape have landed international headlines. His statements at a rally, plus his seesaw between non-apology and apology have triggered outcries and defenses from all sides.
If anything, words have driven the campaign and have at times rendered it insane.
And on a long-agreed date and at a substantially prepped forum, words could again be the bringers of sense to the audience or even the saving grace of the struggling candidate.
The third and final leg of what has been dubbed the PiliPinas Debates will likely be the candidates’ last chance to address the widest audience of voters.
Interest in the debate has grown, as seen in the increasing ratings performance and social media trend of the past two debates handled by GMA 7 and by TV5. Also, the national, global and multi-platform reach of debate producer ABS-CBN will ensure that Filipinos wherever they may be can see and hear the next leader of the country.
In a tight race with no majority vote in sight, undecided voters are looking for that final push—the differing, sensible stand on a gut issue or a deal-breaker by their tentative choice.
Supporters will be looking for ammunition, some even assurances that their preferred candidate deserves their votes.
“I think the candidates know this is the homestretch and many issues still need to be addressed,” said Francis Toral, executive producer of the ABS-CBN debate.
And with all their fiery statements in rallies during the weeks since the last debate in Cebu, the candidates (incidentally the shortest lineup post-EDSA) will be pressured to do and say their best under the spotlight.
It could work to their advantage, or not.
Sharing that spotlight is Pangasinan, the country’s third most vote-rich province.
With 1.7 million registered voters, this province has been one of the more frequent stop of the presidentiables during the campaign.
Grace Poe roamed Pangasinan at least six times since February, her action star father Fernando Poe Jr. having hailed from here. Administration bet Mar Roxas won the most votes here in his failed bid for the vice presidency in 2010 versus another current gunner for the presidency, Jejomar Binay.
With that profile, Pangasinan was picked to host the Luzon portion of the debate.
Dagupan’s streets have turned festive this week. Streamers top the streets in anticipation of the Bangus Festival. Local police have increased security, rerouted traffic away from Arellano Street where U-Pang is located and allocated parking beside establishments for the 200-plus vehicles of the participants.
Dagupan residents said they are excited their city would feel the peak of the campaign heat with the final debate.
But only 1,100 people will be allowed inside the U-Pang grounds to see it live–candidates’ supporters and VIPs included.
Still, the audience holds a crucial part of the conversation in this debate because of its town hall format.
Taking from the campaign practice popularized in the United States, the town hall pits candidates directly with their constituents.
“Real people dealing with real issues will ask the questions,” said debate EP Francis Toral. “The challenge to the candidates would be to give a clear, concrete answer to the problems or issues raised by ordinary Filipinos.”
Seven faces of these ordinary Filipinos were chosen to personally appear on Sunday. One of them will ask live from overseas.
Coming from a multi-platform and month-long call for questions dubbed #HalalanHugot, they each represent issues in areas like transportation, public education, health care and jobs. All of the candidates will answer the same question in a predetermined order.
As with the previous debates, the Comelec set the town hall format. The commission then left it to ABS-CBN to develop the lineup of the program with its approval.
Live debates are familiar ground for ABS-CBN News, whose last foray (and the most recent among all the local networks) into the live candidate face-off was its much-remarked “Harapan” series in 2010.
The “Harapan” touch will be very much present in the ABS-CBN debate this Sunday. In one segment, each candidate will confront a rival to ask a question that they, as candidates and voters too, feel he/she should answer.
Many are counting on the network and its partner the Manila Bulletin to give a fitting climax to the series of debates that has gotten the candidates—and the nation—talking.
Whether for good or bad, the Comelec-mandated debates have been a welcome addition to the already festive and rowdy Philippine election cycle.
In no other election in history has the conversation become more crucial and interesting than now. That’s especially with the increasing power of social media and the number of Filipinos who use and rely on it.
The biggest expectation is for this final debate to lessen the fire and noise and focus the candidates (and the viewers) on their vision for the Philippines come 2022 and beyond.
“This is your last chance to compare the candidates’ policy proposals, their programs of government and their strategies through the country’s different problems. This is your chance to hear, compare, and see where they differ,” said Ging Reyes, ABS-CBN Integrated News chief in a pre-debate briefing.
Hopes are high but the outcome could be unfavorable, depending on how the candidates conduct themselves throughout the debate.
An entire nation will be listening and watching closely as it says for one last time this 2016: “Harapan na!”
* Watch the PiliPinas 2016 town hall debate, moderated by Karen Davila and Tony Velasquez, live on ABS-CBN 2, ANC HD, DZMM TeleRadyo, TFC and iWanTV from 6 to 9 p.m. on Sunday, April 24.
* A pre-debate program hosted by Lynda Jumilla and Alvin Elchico will air from 5 p.m. on ANC and from 5:45 p.m. on ABS-CBN 2. Lynda and Alvin will return after the debate for analysis, fact checking and reactions.
* DZMM will begin its pre-debate coverage at 3 p.m.
* The debate will be streamed on news.abs-cbn.com/live and mb.com.ph. During commercial breaks, the live stream will feature a social media listening segment hosted by TJ Manotoc.