By Lance Arevada

PHOTO: Sagisag

After four bets have declined to join, the stage is set in red as presidential candidates former Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and labor leader Ka Leody de Guzman will face off in the first televised 2022 Elections presidential debate organized on February 15 by SMNI, a media company owned by controversial evangelist Pastor Apollo Quiboloy.

Presidential candidates who have notably attended previous major pre-election events, namely: Vice President Leni Robredo, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso, Senator Manny Pacquiao, and Senator Ping Lacson, announced their absence on the debate initiated by Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) due to conflicts in schedule and various actions by Quiboloy.

Marcos Jr. and De Guzman will be joined by their fellow presidentiables who have confirmed their attendance at the SMNI debate, including former Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella and former Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales.

Atty. Vic Rodriguez, Marcos Jr.’s spokesperson, has confirmed the frontrunner’s attendance at SMNI’s debate. It must also be noted that Quiboloy, SMNI Founder and Chairman, has already endorsed the tandem of Marcos Jr. and Davao City Mayor Inday Sara Duterte in the 2022 polls.

Marcos Jr.’s attendance at the SMNI debate comes as he declined the presidential events organized by GMA News, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), and recently with CNN Philippines.

On the other hand, De Guzman has insisted to join the debate even if he will be entering Marcos Jr.'s “home court.”

“Bilang kandidato, obligasyon kong ilahad ang aking plataporma sa lahat ng botante (kasama ang mga nanlalait sa pagtakbo ng isang labor leader sa pagkapangulo). Kailangan nilang marinig ang lahat ng panig para sa kanilang mas maayos na pagpapasya sa Mayo,” he said. 

De Guzman, who is running under Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM), has explicitly stated before that he does not want to let Marcos Jr. win in the May elections.

In response to what appears to be only two presidential candidates attending their scheduled debate, SMNI President Dr. Marlon Rosete said that the absence of the other four invited presidentiables is not a loss for the network.

“Hindi kawalan ng SMNI ang hindi pagdalo ng iilang mga presidential candidate,” Rosete said in a released statement.

‘In good conscience, prior commitments’

For presidential candidate Senator Manny Pacquiao, he believes he cannot participate “in good conscience” in any events organized by Quiboloy, who is on the most wanted list of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) due to alleged child sex trafficking and cash smuggling.

“I cannot, in good conscience, be part of any activity organized by a man wanted for detestable crimes and who unconscionably used the name of the Lord in vain for religious scams,” Pacquiao, an outspoken Christian, said.

While due to Quiboloy’s endorsement of Marcos Jr. and Duterte, Senator Panfilo Lacson said that he and his running mate, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, will skip the debates as well.

“With all due respect and giving regard to common sense, SP TIto Sotto and I are skipping the SMNI debates. The network’s chairman, Pastor Quiboloy has already openly endorsed his preferred presidential and vice-presidential candidates,” Lacson pointed out in a tweet.

On the other hand, the camps of Vice President Leni Robredo and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso said that they will not be able to join because of the candidates’ scheduled events in Visayas on the date of the debate.

“Leni Robredo has a proven track record of attending debates and interviews regardless of the personal histories or affiliations of its sponsors. Unfortunately, the VP already has a long-standing commitment to meet with leaders and supporters in Panay Island on the date of this event was scheduled,” Robredo spokesperson Atty. Barry Gutierrez said.

While according to Lito Banayo, Moreno’s campaign manager, the mayor is already scheduled to visit Samar provinces this week.

“We are on a swing of the Samar provinces today and tomorrow, returning on Wednesday the 16th. Isko is also on a nostalgic visit to his late mother’s hometown of Allen in Northern Samar tomorrow,” Banayo said.

Prior to the developments in the SMNI Debate, news network CNN Philippines announced that 9 out of 10 presidentiables and 8 out of 9 vice-presidential candidates will attend their organized televised debates that will be held on February 26 to 27.

The current frontrunners in both races, Marcos Jr. and Duterte, are the only ones who refused among all of the candidates invited due to schedule conflict.

Edited by Quian Vencel Galut