[EDITORIAL] #AnimatED: Candidates avoid debates to avoid scrutiny

Let’s cut to the chase and call out reelectionist Senator Grace Poe for shunning public debates now that she does not need them, yet she benefited from the same in 2013, when she topped a senatorial race, and in 2016, when she almost became president.

Let’s cut to the chase and call out reelectionist Senator Sonny Angara who, as a newbie in the 2013 senatorial race and an initial tough sell, had to join debates and guest in all sitcoms and TV shows to court votes. 

Both first-time senatorial bets in 2013, Poe and Angara won that race – a victory that’s nothing to sneeze at: she landed number one; he was number 6. 

Today, banking on the enormous advantage of the incumbent, they suddenly don’t care about these debates. 

Poe argues she’d rather have questions asked of her directly by voters during sorties. She’s not being straightforward. To be frank, Poe and Angara, like the rest who have said no to any of the debates organized by the media for the May elections, are simply scared. 

This is what’s in their heads but will not spill through a soundbite: Why rock the boat when we have a steady hold of our numbers? Look at Imee Marcos’ fumble. She attended GMA News’ senatorial debate and got pummelled by survey bottom-dweller Chel Diokno.

Indeed, why fix what isn’t broken? 

This is what it’s in their heads but will not spill through a soundbite: Why waste time in an event we can’t control, when we can bus in a captive crowd to our own rallies, buy airtime, bribe journalists, photo-bomb our popular President, and spend our millions and taxpayers’ money on billboards and election-day fixers? 

It does not help that even President Rodrigo Duterte himself is suddenly describing these debates as “useless” as if he did not gain from attending them in 2016, when he was still the little-known mayor who needed to introduce himself to the rest of the country.

Of the 15 senatorial candidates within the so-called winning circle in the latest Pulse Asia survey conducted last January, at least 9 have skipped any national forum or debate organized by the media:

Truth be told, candidates who say no to debates are scared.

Scared to be asked. Scared to be grilled. Scared to be exposed for their flip-flops, their liberal pretensions, their deafening silence over the killings, the blatant misuse of the law, the abuse of power. 

Scared to be made to explain their hallow justification for it: that they’d rather focus on bread-and-butter issues for their constituents, even if senators are not primarily tasked to take care of our bread and butter.

In full display is their cynicism and opportunism, the kind that reminds us of why we abhor politicians in the first place – they who are a step away from victory but would not subject themselves to voter scrutiny.

They want to buy their way to the Senate, at the expense of what, in essence, is the spirit of an election campaign: for voters to see through their paid ads, for voters to make sense of their answers to questions vetted by disinterested parties such as journalists, and for voters to catch them at their most vulnerable and see what they’re made of.

A public audit will serve candidates – and the people they are sworn to serve – well.

For, unlike the presidency or the mayoralty, the Senate is not a fiefdom. You do your constituents real service – and improve your political stock in the process – by battling it out there to push for your pet law or advocacy or conduct oversight on a malfunctioning agency.

A senator’s job, aside from crafting laws, is to check the tremendous powers of the executive and shine the light on what is hidden. One is able to do that only if one has the smarts – and courage.

So, shame on you, Mister or Miss Candidate, if you think you can do that by running away from debates that will not even test your courage, just your wits.

Political kingpin Sara Duterte will protest the word scared. She’s been saying the administration bets are ready and able – as long as the debates are not hastily organized, bara-bara.

Well, let's get on with it then. 

The law says the Commission on Elections (Comelec) can organize debates for presidential and vice presidential races – yet not for senatorial campaigns. But so what? 

The Comelec cannot invoke that to duck from its primary duty to voters, which is to give them a chance to choose wisely, past the circus and false advertising that they’re now inundated with.

We ask the Comelec to use all its moral suasion to organize one senatorial debate and compel all major candidates to attend. Or we wake up in May with a Senate slate that is purely bought and paid for.

Rappler is doing its part in this campaign, as we launch on Monday afternoon, March 4, the first of a series of senatorial forums. Watch it live here. – Rappler.com