In what could be the first public debate among the frontrunners in the May presidential election, it was Vice-president Leni Robredo and Sen.

Panfilo Lacson who impressed primetime TV audiences with their “more detailed understanding of the issues.”

The presidential debate on GMA Network hosted by journalist Jessica Soho, which was sanctioned by the Commission on Election, was snubbed by former Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. for the supposed bias of Soho against the Marcoses. Marcos then received flak as a coward “who has something to hide.”

“Both Vice-president Leni and Sen. Lacson showed a more detailed understanding of many issues,” said Maria Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines.

Atienza said Robredo answered the questions thoroughly and presented a detailed action plan. “However, given the limited time format, she was not given the time to elaborate on the nuances of her responses.”

Robredo vowed to prioritize job creation, healthcare and education if she becomes president. She also traced problems in the government’s anti-coronavirus pandemic response to leaders who think it’s not urgent.

“Leni demonstrated transformative politics, away from the dole-out mentality that we have been used to,” Jean Encinas-Franco, who also teaches political science at UP, said in a Facebook chat. “She sees that Filipinos are part of the solution.”

Sen. Manny Pacquiao and Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso also participated in the GMA program.

Franco said world boxing champion Pacquiao, who vowed to deter corruption, “came out as sincere, narrating his past transgressions.”

Domagoso, a former matinee idol, drew from his experiences as Manila mayor and was the most pragmatic, said Zy-za Nadine Suzara, executive director of the Institute for Leadership, Empowerment and Democracy. “But those are not enough to lead an entire country.”

“Among the four presidential aspirants, VP Leni Robredo presented a concrete platform of governance,” she said in a Messenger chat. She had “a comprehensive development agenda in mind from pandemic management, economic recovery and many pressing socio-economic issues our country faces.”

“All four who appeared for the interview performed creditably well,” said Julio Teehankee, a political science professor at De La Salle University.

“Lacson demonstrated wisdom, Moreno experience, Robredo heart and Pacquiao courage,” he said in a Messenger chat.

Among the four, only Pacquiao opposed proposals seeking to ease foreign ownership limits under the 1987 Constitution.

“They have an idea of what they want to achieve but they need more time and platform to articulate how they will operationalize their proposed projects,” said John Paolo Rivera, an economist at the Asian Institute of Management.

Rivera said it’s not about the best platform anymore because the candidates have similar government platforms.

“It should be about who will execute these promises and platforms and mobilize resources in the most efficient and effective way.”

On the absence of Marcos in the debate, Rivera said Marcos’s absence raises questions about his competence and might affect his popularity.

“Not being there will certainly raise a lot of questions about the absentee’s motives for running, competence as a leader and durability to assume the most difficult job,” said Michael Henry Yusingco, a research fellow at the Ateneo De Manila University Policy Center. “It is definitely possible for a candidate who uses such a tactic to lose votes.”
“I think many Filipinos will be turned off by a candidate who avoids these kinds of pre-election activities,” Yusingco added.

“Marcos feels that he is above scrutiny and he is not accountable to the public and the media,” Atienza said. “These are indications that he does not believe in non-scripted public discussions, debates and deliberations,” she said.

“The road to the presidency is not a walk in the park,” Franco said. “You owe it to the nation to explain your agenda by facing head on difficult questions that the media may propose.”