PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — AMID speculation that he is shying away from public debates after a recent poor showing, Senator Benigno Aquino III came under heavy fire for snubbing a forum of presidential hopefuls organized by big business groups Thursday.
“Where are the others?” former President Fidel Ramos asked when he realized that Aquino, a frontrunner in the opinion surveys, and ousted President Joseph Estrada were absent from the forum at the Asian Institute of Management.
His question drew jeers and applause from members of the Makati Business Club, the European Chamber of Commerce, the diplomatic corps and the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation, which organized the forum.
Aquino’s absence was particularly surprising since he counts many supporters from AIM and the Makati Business Club.
Liberal Party campaign manager Florencio Abad said Aquino did not attend the forum because of an important commitment, and not because he was deliberately avoiding a public debate with his political rivals.
“It was just a question of schedule,” Abad told Standard Today. “We had a commitment to go to La Union. Based on surveys, Noynoy should make up for some weakness in La Union and other provinces in the North. His presence [there] was necessary.”
Chosen from the audience to ask the presidential candidates a question, Ramos praised the three who showed up—former Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. of the Lakas-Kampi-CMD, Senator Richard Gordon of Bagumbayan, and Senator Manuel Villar Jr. of the Nacionalista party—for their “forthrightness” in answering the questions.
“It is the duty of the candidates to tell the people what they stand for,” said professor Carolina Hernandez, who, like Ramos, was chosen from among the audience to ask questions of the three candidates.
Aquino said he was in La Union meeting supporters, and that he had made a prior commitment even before the invitation for the presidential forum arrived.
“The organizers [of the presidential forum] were told of this Northern Luzon commitment,” Aquino told Standard Today.
But the Aquino camp could not commit to his participation in two more upcoming forums, saying only that they were “under consideration.”
Without specifying the events, Abad said the senator was scheduled to take part in various forums between now and Jan. 28.
Estrada’s campaign manager, former senator Ernesto Maceda, said the former president had begged off because he had already accepted an invitation to speak before the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
That event was eventually moved, but since Estrada had already sent his regrets, he accepted other appointments for the day, Maceda said.
Evangelist Eddie Villanueva said he was not invited to the AIM forum, but would participate in another event in Cebu next week.
Villanueva said he also confirmed his attendance to the forum being arranged by the chamber.
Aquino and Estrada’s absence made them fair game for the other candidates.
Asked how they would make economic gains trickle down to the grassroots and what they thought were hindrances to economic growth, Teodoro cited competence in leadership, transparency, and the need for leaders to share not just a vision but the burdens that people bear.
“Leadership is very important in managing the economy. It requires experience and competence, not just popularity,’’ Villar said.
“It’s not just popularity and emotions,” he said, apparently referring to Aquino whose popularity shot up after his mother, former President Corazon Aquino, died of cancer last year.
“You cannot buy the presidency, you cannot inherit the presidency, you have to earn it,” Gordon said.
Estrada, who was convicted of plunder and then pardoned, drew flak, too.
When asked how they would prevent crime, Gordon said, “those who have done wrong should be punished, and criminals should not be pardoned after two years to show the world that the Philippine government means business.”
Teodoro wanted cash incentives for those who do good as a deterrent to those who do wrong in government. Crime prevention, he said, was as important as crime resolution. He also wanted the judiciary to be strengthened and to be well-funded “no matter who gets hurt or even if powerful people would not be happy.”
When Ramos asked the candidates what lifestyle they would lead when they became President, and whether or not they would appoint their relatives to various positions, Teodoro said he would lead a “modest lifestyle with a set of clear goals, and I would not allow undue influence from anyone.”
Villar said he was leading a simple life with only one wife, an obvious dig at Estrada, who is known as a womanizer who maintains several families.
“I only have one wife. We were classmates and we have been together for 40 years now,” Villar said. “It is important that we lead by example.”
Gordon said the President could not be “nice all the time.”
“That’s why in Subic, we were able to maintain the discipline,” he said, recalling how, years ago, he picked up a cigarette butt that then President Estrada had thrown on the ground on a visit to the former US military base.