COMELEC: Presence in poll debates not mandatory

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This photo taken on April 24, 2016 shows Philippine presidential candidates, Vice-President Jejomar Binay (L) gesturing next to Senator Miriam Santiago (2nd L), Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte (C), Senator Grace Poe (2nd R), and former interior secretary Mar Roxas (R) during the presidential debate by COMELEC at Phinma University of Pangasinan in Dagupan City, north of Manila. - More than 50 million people in the mainly Catholic Asian nation are qualified to vote on May 9 with Duterte holding a clear lead over four other candidates, including Aquino's preferred successor. (Photo by - / POOL / AFP) (Photo by -/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO: This photo taken on April 24, 2016 shows Philippine presidential candidates, Vice-President Jejomar Binay (L) gesturing next to Senator Miriam Santiago (2nd L), Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte (C), Senator Grace Poe (2nd R), and former interior secretary Mar Roxas (R) during the presidential debate at Phinma University of Pangasinan in Dagupan City, north of Manila. COMELEC said that presence in the electoral debates organized by the poll body was fully up to the candidates. (Photo: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Commission on Elections (COMELEC) information director James Jimenez said that presence in the electoral debates organized by the Commission was fully up to the candidates.

“Under the law, participation in debates is not mandatory. Wala tayong choice (We don’t have a choice). We cannot force them to join the debates,” he said.

Jimenez elaborated though that candidates have consistently shown up in the debates, taking advantage of airtime.

“However, historically speaking, when the debate has been organized by the COMELEC, or if the COMELEC has taken a lead role in organizing the debates, the candidates do come,” he said. “They don’t have to, but they do come, because it is massive airtime, and they do get massive coverage that they could not normally get otherwise without paying or without possibly running afoul of the time limits for broadcast advertising.”

“Ultimately, the coverage, the exposure, that’s what tips the balance I think for candidates.”

The information director announced that the Commission targets to have the electoral debates from February to April, with one debate happening per month.

"We hope to stage the debates starting February, then we’ll have one set of debates per month, for February, March and April. We will have back-to-back debates — presidential and VP debates, one after the other, once a month,” he said.

However, COMELEC is still securing the memorandum of understanding with the candidates.

"It’s good that we have the final list of candidates out now. We will begin the process of negotiation with the candidates. We have to secure MOUs with them so they will agree to the rules of the debate,” Jimenez said.

Mark Ernest Famatigan is a news writer who focuses on Philippine politics. He is an advocate for press freedom and regularly follows developments in the Philippine economy. The views expressed are his own.

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