What you missed behind the scenes at the CNN Philippines Senatorial Forum

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Former PNP chief Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa, who is running under the administration party PDP-Laban, jokes around with Liberal Party candidate, Gary Alejano, a known Duterte critic. Photo by JILSON TIU

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At 2:30 in the afternoon, the 94-year-old Juan Ponce Enrile sits on a cushioned chair, surrounded by his three bodyguards, at the holding room of the University Theater in UP Diliman.

He is the first candidate to arrive for this year's senatorial forum, half an hour earlier than the call time. In just a few hours, he and seven other senatorial hopefuls will discuss and answer the most pressing issues of the Philippines today.  

Armie Jarin-Bennett, the president of CNN Philippines, goes inside the room and greets Enrile, welcoming him to the event and thanking him for agreeing to join the discussion. “Of course, I don't want to disappoint you,” Enrile tells her. “This should be a piece of cake 'no?” Bennett asks, pertaining to Enrile’s years in public service. If elected, it will be his fifth time in the upper chamber so a forum such as this should come easy for him. “Hindi naman,” he answers. “Depende sa questions,” he adds, chuckling.

7Z4A4763.jpg Veteran lawmaker Juan Ponce Enrile is the first to arrive at the University Theater. Photo by JILSON TIU

7Z4A4771.jpg Ex-Marine Gary Alejano asks about the flow of the senatorial forum. Photo by JILSON TIU

At exactly 3 p.m., Magdalo party list representative, staunch Duterte critic, and ex-Marine Gary Alejano goes inside the holding room, wearing a midnight blue jacket over a white shirt and a pair of jeans. He shakes hands with Enrile and proceeds to survey the room. He asks his staff what he's supposed to wear onstage. A woman from his team takes out a suit, a barong, and a white button-down shirt. “Ito na lang,” he says, pointing to the simplest option: the white button-down with the words “Sundalo ng Pilipinas” appliqued on its front pocket.

As Alejano settles down, Chel Diokno, a human rights lawyer who has been pushing for a better justice system, then comes in, wearing teal, his chosen political color. Earlier, before any of the candidates arrived, the first pool of supporters outside of the theater are clad in shades of teal and mint.

“The color is my sister’s choice,” says Laya Diokno, one of Chel's daughters. “My dad is not a traditional politician and what he is fighting for is not what traditional politicians are fighting for. It’s different. The color comes with the difference in who he is.”

7Z4A4779.jpg Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, son of former senator Jose Diokno, arrives at the venue wearing his political color, teal. Photo by JILSON TIU


Alejano and Diokno are both running under the Liberal Party while Enrile is running as an independent candidate. The first one to arrive under the administration party, PDP-Laban, is re-electionist senator JV Ejercito.

In a navy suit, he disembarks from his pitch black SUV with his family, his bodyguards, and his communications team in tow. He walks to the holding room, his hand over his young kid who is playing on his phone, oblivious to the crowd and cameras trailing their path. A few minutes later, in comes former Bureau of Corrections chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, with a posse of four men (one wearing a gray shirt with the tag line, “Sagot kita, itaga mo sa BATO”) and one woman. Bato exchanges pleasantries with Ejercito, sharing his recent trip up north — “Kalinga, Apayao, pumunta ako,” he says.

Dela Rosa’s communications manager, the sole woman on his team today, tells him that there are other senatorial candidates in the other room and that he might want to say hi. He excuses himself from Ejercito, and goes straight to Enrile, who is focused on his iPad.

Alejano then makes his way to Bato and Enrile, and the three chat about their experiences in security and defense — Enrile as Ferdinand Marcos’ Defense Minister during the martial law years and Bato and Alejano's time in the Philippine Military Academy. “Kami ang first graduate ni Cory Aquino,” boasts dela Rosa.

7Z4A4809.jpg Re-electionist JV Ejercito chats with dela Rosa about the latter's trip in Kalinga and Apayao. Photo by JILSON TIU

7Z4A4830.jpg Alejano and dela Rosa, both Philippine Military Academy graduates, exchange anecdotes with Enrile about their time serving the public through security and defense. Photo by JILSON TIU

The former PNP chief then leaves the room and goes outside of the theater, stays by the metal railing, as he seemingly reads notes from his phone. Just as he positions himself, a white van parks in the back entrance of the theater  — former senator Serge Osmeña is here.

Waiting for him at the back entrance are a few of his supporters wearing a light blue shirt (the words “Subok na!” printed on the back). “I've been a fan since forever,” one of them says, and then takes a photo with the politician. Osmeña is assisted to his holding room, where Ejercito is at as well. The two candidates have a quick chat as Duterte’s former political adviser and MMDA head, Francis Tolentino, comes in.

Outside the theater, middle-aged women wearing white shirts flock together, waiting for entry. “Nag-dayo pa kami mula Tagaytay,” says a Tolentino supporter, who shares that they have been campaigning for Tolentino ever since he was mayor of Tagaytay City. “[Sumusuporta kami sa kanya] kasi kahit dati pa madali siya lapitan tungkol sa kahit ano — gamit sa eskuwela, gamit para sa mga anak, kahit ano.”

In their holding room, Ejercito, Tolentino, and Osmeña are glued to the television, watching political analysts critique and discuss the chances of the senatorial candidates present at the CNN Philippines forum. As the topic moves to Ejercito's credentials, the analyst mentions that Ejercito “walks his talks,” the quote flashing on T.V. He immediately calls his staff, signalling to take a photo of the screen.

7Z4A5048.jpg Former senator Serge Osmeña is glued to the T.V. as political analysts discuss the various senatorial candidates' credentials. Photo by JILSON TIU

7Z4A5043.jpg Former MMDA head Francis Tolentino and JV Ejercito, both under the administration party PDP-Laban, talk while watching the analysts discuss their chances on T.V. Photo by JILSON TIU

7Z4A4956.jpg Senator Bam Aquino shakes hands with Enrile, after greeting his fellow LP candidates, Alejano and Diokno. Photo by JILSON TIU  

The last to arrive is senator Bam Aquino, in his signature black pique shirt and black-rimmed eyeglasses, who is hoping for a second term under the Liberal Party. As he enters their holding area, he first greets his fellow LP candidates — Alejano and Diokno. “Ready? Ready?” Aquino teases Diokno while mimicking a boxer’s stance. He shakes hands with Alejano, Bato, then Enrile.

Aquino’s team, compared to the other senatoriables, is strikingly young. While others’ staff had a camera and a videographer, his had iPhones, ready to snap and upload on social media. As Aquino’s portraits are being taken, one of his team members is on the sidelines, all set to upload an Instagram story.

Fifteen minutes before they go out on stage, they line up behind the curtains in alphabetical order — Alejano, Aquino, Dela Rosa, Diokno, Ejercito, Enrile, Osmeña, and Tolentino. The people who have been surrounding them since they arrived — bodyguards, communications managers, campaign leaders, VIP supporters, assistants, makeup artists, videographers — gradually leave them to their own devices.

“Mukhang hindi naman siya kinakabahan so hindi din ako kinakabahan,” says dela Rosa’s communications manager. “Kaya niya ‘yan!” says Aquino’s team member. “Nakakastress ano?” adds Alejano’s assistant.

Their names are called one by one, the crowd of supporters erupts to cheers and howls, and the senatorial hopefuls walk on stage, wave, and smile. The show has just begun.

7Z4A4996.jpg While Bam Aquino's portraits are being taken, his team is armed with smartphones to document his every move. Photo by JILSON TIU

7Z4A5114.jpg Dela Rosa stretches just right before the candidates are called to the stage. Photo by JILSON TIU

7Z4A5161.jpg The eight senatorial hopefuls line behind the curtain before setting foot on stage. Photo by JILSON TIU


The supporters are seated across where their candidate is sitting onstage. On the right hand side of the theater are Alejano’s supporters who chant his name for every time he answers questions. In the middle are Aquino’s campaigners with orange bandanas wrapped around their foreheads. Beside them are dela Rosa’s team, largely in gray shirts, who applaud their chief’s antics on stage.

The sea of teal color a substantial portion of the middle area, with Diokno’s children up front and center. Beside them are Osmeña’s allies in their light blue garb, behind are Ejercito’s groups in orange, and on the left hand side of the theater is Tolentino’s supporters — all of the cheers reverberating even more loudly as the event progresses.

Senators are asked of their stance on key issues; they talk about programs they stand by, projects they wish to achieve, and also the current Duterte administration. Some of the candidates are asked if President Duterte has done enough to curb corruption, to which dela Rosa replies with an impassioned speech of how the president has done and tried everything to fight this political disease.

7Z4A5368.jpg Supporters of the senatorial candidates wearing their respective political colors. Photo by JILSON TIU

BTS-11.jpg While dela Rosa explains his stance on the martial law extension in Mindanao, the former BuCor chief is met with uproar from a group in the audience, “Never again! Never again! Never again to martial law!” Photo by JL JAVIER

7Z4A5525.jpg Supporters and fans of the politicians continue to cheer and howl, even as the senatorial candidates exit the stage. Photo by JILSON TIU

Members in the audience are not convinced, however, and as dela Rosa continues to describe a litany of Duterte’s ways to fight corruption, he is jeered and heckled. In another question about his opinion on the martial law extension in Mindanao, the former BuCor chief is again met with uproar from a group in the audience, “Never again! Never again! Never again to martial law!”

As the program draws to a close, the candidates are called out one by one, until they form a line on stage — all smiles and waving to the audience. The supporters explode in a mishmash of cheers, claps, and cries, drowning out CNN Philippines Chief Correspondent Pia Hontiveros as she closes the show. The senatorial aspirants exit the stage, take off their lapels, and are met with their teams, assisting their every move and gesture.

Alejano, Diokno, and Osmeña are greeted backstage with family and supporters; Enrile is held by his bodyguards as he makes his way out of the theater; Aquino and Ejercito proceed to shake the hands of the production team of the event; dela Rosa jokes around with his team as spectators take selfies with him; and Tolentino departs the venue, high-fiving a crew member.

The campaign period is yet to start but the candidates appear to have readied themselves for an arduous race.