Debate fiasco adds to Comelec credibility issues — analysts 

COMELEC officials discuss issues on the third round of debates during a press conference on April 22, 2022 at the Comelec office in Intramuros, Manila. — PHILSTAR/ RUSSELL PALMA

THE CONTROVERSY over the cancellation of the supposed final round of official debates for the country’s top two positions for the upcoming May 9 national elections has again put internal issues of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in the spotlight, adding to public doubt in the agency, political analysts said at the weekend.  

“It seems like something suspicious could have happened, considering the amount that would have been spent on the high-budgeted debates,” Gerard V. Eusebio, a political science lecturer from the De La Salle University, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.   

Comelec announced last week that the third round of official debates would be modified into a pre-taped panel interview format after the failure of their private contractor, Impact Hub Manila, to fulfill P14 million in financial obligations to the venue, Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila.  

“The Comelec should always maintain its purity at all costs and not allow its credibility to be eroded in any way,” Mr. Eusebio said.   

Election Commissioner Rey E. Bulay, who is leading the probe on the incident, said in a statement on Friday that he recommends to temporarily relieve Comelec Spokesperson James B. Jimenez and Comelec Education and Information Director Frances A. Arabe from their media relations roles, as they were the point-persons for the Impact Hub Manila partnership.  

Ms. Arabe told reporters in a Viber message last Friday that her actions concerning the debates were legitimate, but will abide by Mr. Bulay’s directive when issued.  

Mr. Jimenez has yet to issue a statement on the issue.  

“Considering the controversies even before this, I think Comelec’s position remains troubled,” Hansley A. Juliano, a former political science professor studying at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development in Japan, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.   

One of the recent issues raised against the election body were delays in the resolution of disqualification cases against presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr.  

Comelec has also been criticized for printing a significant number of ballots without the presence of accredited observers. There was also a confirmed hacking incident involving a worker of Smartmatic, the technology service provider for this year’s automated elections.   

“At the same time, I am indeed getting the impression that the breakdown of the (debate) issue is technically an internal logistical concern at heart (involving perhaps mistakes or bad actions by a few people) but because it involves a very public event like this, it’s inevitable it blew up,” Mr. Juliano said.  

Only six of 10 presidential candidates and four of nine vice-presidential candidates accepted Comelec’s invitation to the modified forum, Election Commissioner George Erwin M. Garcia told reporters in a Viber message last week.  

Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo, Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” M. Domagoso, and Senator Panfilo “Ping” M. Lacson declined the invitation due to prior commitments, Mr. Garcia noted.  

Mr. Marcos, who skipped the first two Comelec-sponsored debates on March 19 and April 3, also declined the interview format.   

“The only real impact of an election debate/forum is if the frontrunners are there,” Mr. Juliano said. — John Victor D. Ordoñez 

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