MANILA, March 22, 2004  (STAR) GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc - The first of three presidential debates unfolds tonight. Only two of the five aspirants confirmed to attend: Raul Roco and Eddie Villanueva, 3rd and 5th in poll ratings. Survey leaders Gloria Arroyo and Fernando Poe Jr., and 4th-ranking Ping Lacson have deemed it undeserving of their time. It somehow shows how politicians treat elections Ė as nothing more than a contest of popularity or party machinery or calumny.

The topic of debate is "population, poverty, human development," rated in polls as the gravest issue of the day. The candidates would have a chance to present their ideas and plans, and to question that of contenders. By snubbing it, they give the impression that votersí health, offspring, education, quality of life and future mean nothing to them.

FPJ dismisses debate as divisive. Despite having educator-senator Edgardo Angara as chief campaigner and Vice President Tito Guingona as adviser on public policy, he still does not recognize the value of debate in a democracy. Maybe they think he would only make a fool of himself talking serious stuff. Or, they fear that if family size pops up, FPJ would be asked about his five daughters and a son out of wedlock.

President Arroyo says itís worthless if her foremost challenger is not in. Impliedly she sees debate solely as a chance to cut down the contender, not to explain her programs. She has appealed to opponents to desist from mudslinging but instead talk sedately of public concerns. This debate is a venue to dispel imputations of electioneering in her putting of 3.6 million rural workers under health insurance, her hiring of 1.8 million jobless to sweep highways till they land better-paying jobs, and her distribution of aid to 2.3 million farmers. These and other works, like electricity and water where thereís none, roll on-roll off shipping for interisland commerce, and the new school curriculum, are in line with human development. Shirking debate would be ironic.

Lacson backed out when Ms Arroyo did. He would have wanted to villify her with old unsubstantiated charges of graft that breeds poverty.

Presidents cannot avoid the population issue. Two million babies are being born each year, to unschooled mothers as young as 15, by fathers with no skills for gainful employment. The moms donít work because they need to care for five, six, seven growing children at a time. The dads turn despondent because the kids they begot as investments for old age grow up uneducated like them. Society can no longer cope. Poor couples push the population growth rate to 2.4 percent, while educated ones with only one or two children flee the country for jobs overseas. To top it all, Catholic bishops are barring all government efforts at family planning, without offering alternatives.

Canít the candidates face this truth?

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My apology to Vice President Guingona and to readers for my lapse in history (Gotcha, 17 Mar. 2004). A recheck of Con-Con records shows that delegate Guingona indeed was marked absent on the day of voting to give Marcos sole power to rule indefinitely. As Guingona said (Feedback, 20 Mar. 2004), he did not vote because of his "stand against the 1973 Constitution."

Still, the heroes of yesterday can be the heels of today. That is, if those who fought Marcos now deem the national wound inflicted by martial law healed not by justice but by time. Decades have passed with no redress for victims of torture or recovery of stolen wealth. By joining FPJ, whose main patron is the man whom Guingona accused of plunder and whose ticket includes Marcos minions, does he now cast principles aside for politics of convenience?

Guingona brags that his advisory role for FPJ has begun to bear fruit. The high school dropout who would be President is now giving longer campaign speeches. Yet those speeches are nothing but bombast in the style of the í60s. It sounds ever so trapo (traditional politics). Sigh!

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Guingona joined FPJ on the latterís personal invitation to be adviser on governance and public policy. That invitation came in a March 10 letter, presumably drafted by FPJís staff for his signature.

FPJís one-pager contained many errors of English syntax, grammar and spelling that only the careless or unlearned will let pass. Eg.: "After consultations, let me say that I subscribe to your Program of Action embodies (sic) in Bangon! and other civic organizations, among others, the following." It then enumerated eight action points. Eg,: "3. Give meaning to local autonomy recognizing the role of governors and mayors as partners in socio-economic development pursuant to law and the principal of subsidiary (sic)." Perhaps FPJ meant "principle of subsidiarity," a Christian Democrat line of mustering mass participation in governance and limiting national authority to matters that local units cannot handle by themselves. FPJ also used the informal "thru" thrice in the formal communication with the Vice President.

FPJ is not adept in English. He once told reporters, when asked for birthday greetings to his running mate Loren Legarda, "I wish her, ah ... Iím sorry, Iím lost (sic) for words." He says he prefers to speak in Filipino to the masses. Of course he should. But when he switches to English, he must do it right, too. If he becomes President and must send letters in English to the leaders of America, Australia or even ASEAN, he has to be careful with form and content. It would not look good to say, "Oh that, he-he, sorry ha, thatís the fault of Tito Sotto over there."

Then again, it happens even to US leaders. Dan Quayle once insisted to a schoolboy during a classroom visit that the right spelling of what they eat is "potatoe". He also described his job thus: "One word probably sums up the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is Ďto be prepared.í" And President Gerald Ford once rued, "If Lincoln were alive today, he would be rolling over in his grave."

Catch Linawin Natin, Mondays at 11 p.m., on IBC-13.

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E-mail: jariusbondoc@workmail.com

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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