'We cannot legislate': Comelec says no legal power to compel debate attendance

Jauhn Etienne Villaruel, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 28 2022 04:49 PM

Vice presidential candidate Sara Duterte was not present during Comelec’s official debates held at the Sofitel Tent in Pasay City on March 20, 2022. Duterte refused to participate in the debates. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News
Vice presidential candidate Sara Duterte was not present during Comelec’s official debates held at the Sofitel Tent in Pasay City on March 20, 2022. Duterte refused to participate in the debates. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA — The Commission on Elections (Comelec) said Monday it cannot legally compel candidates to attend debates amid frustrations over the survey frontrunners' non-participation in such gatherings. 

During the Laging Handa briefing Monday, Comelec Commissioner George Garcia said the poll body is powerless in securing attendance for their debates because there are no laws mandating it. 

"Sana maunawaan ng mga kababayan natin na ang Comelec po ay kikilos lamang base kung ano ang mga umiiral natin na batas. We cannot legislate... Ang pagho-hold ng presidential debate, although yan ay aming sinasagawa, iyan ay voluntary," Garcia lamented. 

During last week's vice presidential debate, candidate Walden Bello publicly called out the Comelec for its "weak" penalty for those snubbing the debates, specifically frontrunners Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte-Carpio.

Comelec only denies debate skippers of their access to use the poll body's e-rally page.

"We need to get something from these people. To penalize them like a big, huge penalty like P203 billion," Bello said, pertaining to Marcos Jr.'s estate tax dues.

But Garcia said Comelec has no authority to define "crime."

"Sapagkat wala po tayong umiiral na batas na 'hoy lahat ng kanidao dapat humarap kayo sa presidential debate pag hindi disqualified o kaya kulong na 1-6 taon.' Wala po kasing ganon. Hindi po Comelec ang puwedeng mag-define ng isang act [para] maging isang krimen," Garcia said. 

Garcia also said that Filipino voters are "mature" enough to determine what qualities they are looking for in a candidate.

"Habang at this point pa hindi pa namin malaman kung anong puwede naming idagdag na parusa o sanction, eh nasa sainyo po yan kung palagay nyo komportable kayo sa isang kandidato na hindi humaharap sa debate, nasa inyo po ang desisyon, tayo po ay mga mature na mamayan ng bansang ito," he said. 

The Comelec is preparing to hold another presidential debate on April 3, Sunday.