Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At 3:20 p.m., former Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Raffy Alunan is the first to arrive among the participating senatorial bets at the Hyundai Hall, Areté in the Ateneo de Manila University for CNN Philippines’ second senatorial forum. Clad in a light blue shirt with a pin of the Philippine flag on his collar, he settles into the holding room, where he takes notice of the news on the T.V. — the bombing incident at a cathedral in Jolo, Sulu.
Minutes later, former congressman Erin Tañada enters the room, wearing his signature bright green shirt, flanked by his son and his nephew, who wear similar shirts, but with Tañada’s face printed on the upper left side, and his campaign slogan — “May dangal at integridad. Matatag!” — printed at the back. While Tañada surveys the stage area outside, the two teens discuss which of them will be in charge of taking photos and videos.
At 3:26 p.m., former presidential spokesperson Harry Roque makes his way into the room, followed by a large team of about eight people, all in various shades of red and maroon, including his wife Myla and their daughter, whom he introduces to Alunan.
Soon after, former solicitor general Florin Hilbay (known to his supporters as “Pilo”), who is in a dark blue polo shirt, dark jeans, and sneakers, walks in with his team of three. After getting his portrait taken, Hilbay sits on the sofa opposite Roque. They later about their days in U.P. Law. and the world university rankings of their school.
A little later, Alunan and Tañada make their way to the mess hall across the venue for a quick snack. They sit a few tables apart from each other, only talking to their respective close-ins.
At around 4 p.m., former congressman Neri Colmenares arrives, and is followed shortly after by Magdalo partylist representative Gary Alejano, who participated in CNN Philippines’ first Senatorial Forum last December. “Nako, kumpleto pala kayo!” Roque quips, referring to the Otso Diretso slate which Alejano, Hilbay, and Tañada are part of. “Supportive ako!” Alejano responds. “Moral support po,” he repeats shaking hands with Colmenares.
As Alejano, Colmenares, Hilbay, and Roque relax on the sofas, the candidates tune into the T.V., where political analysts discuss their standings in the polls. “Do we really want to hear these pollsters?” says Roque laughing. As the analysts discuss Hilbay’s standings, Roque teases, “Ayan na, Florin Hilbay, ano sasabihin sayo?” but the T.V. loses signal momentarily and the screen goes black — the room erupts in laughter.
When it comes back on, an analyst can be heard saying, “So far, he’s not doing well,” to which Roque remarks “Ouch! Well, that goes for all of us.”
Civic leader Samira Gutoc — the only woman attending tonight’s forum — enters the room 15 minutes later. “Good afternoon Harry, Pilo, good luck sa atin,” she says. Her team, composed mainly of women, assist her in preparing her notes and her outfit, a purple long-sleeved top accompanied by a purple blazer.
Former DILG secretary Mar Roxas is the last to arrive at 4:20 p.m., completing the forum’s lineup. Tañada greets Roxas warmly with a handshake before tending to his family. As the rest of the candidates are assisted with their lapel mics, Roxas and Alejano have a quick moment to catch up. “Cheerer lang ako,” Alejano says, tapping Roxas on the shoulder.
When Roxas realizes Colmenares and Alunan are beside them as well, he jokes “O, this is the Ilonggo mafia all together!” The four of them pose for a photo together and chat in Ilonggo. Their conversation shifts to the Jolo bombing, where they update one another on the number of dead and wounded as of the hour.
Five minutes ‘til showtime, the senatorial candidates are lined up backstage in alphabetical order. Colmenares offers Gutoc and Hilbay a handshake. One of the men from Roque’s campaign team bids Gutoc good luck. Roxas and Tañada tap each other on the back in solidarity.
As each candidate takes their spot onstage, their supporters fill the theater with cheers and screams. Looking out from the stage, one can observe swaths of people in red shirts chanting “Alunan!” to the rightmost side of the audience, a woman in a dark blue shirt commanding the middle part of the audience with a “HEP HEP! PILO!” chant, and the leftmost side — a sea of green and light blue — cheering loudly for both Roxas and Tañada.
During commercial breaks, the candidates are asked questions from social media and members of the audience. The audience cheers passionately for Gutoc as she responds to an audience question about penalizing sexual harassment and rape jokes by saying “We should not allow rape jokes in our society … rape jokes by anybody should be called to task.” Meanwhile, as Roque responds to a question on Chinese immigrant workers by asking if there are enough skilled workers in the Philippines, the audience yells back “MERON!” and subsequently boos his retort for an inventory of jobs and workers. The candidates also receive queries regarding the Dengvaxia scare, inflation, Manila Bay’s rehabilitation, and the shift to a federal government.
Numerous “Yes or No” questions — wherein candidates are not allowed to explain their answers — also initiate a buzz of surprised reactions and both cheers and jeers from the audience. Most notable are Alunan and Roque’s “no” responses to whether Congress should compel President Duterte to make his medical records public and to whether the Philippine media is under threat, and Colmenares’ “no” to whether the BOL will help establish long-lasting peace and uplift lives of Filipinos in Mindanao.
The news of the Jolo bombing also hangs in the air, and is brought up onstage in the forum with the question “Is martial law justified in Mindanao?” addressed to Hilbay, Alunan, and Gutoc. The answers, especially of the latter two, garners mixed reactions from the audience.
“It is not justified,” says Gutoc, a Marawi City resident and former member of the expanded Bangsamoro Transition Commission. “There is no invasion, there is no lawless rebellion … I feel that martial law is uncalled for, we have a freedom of press, it should be guaranteed. The right to liberty and motion should be guaranteed, and it is under threat under martial law,” she adds. The audience erupts in cheers.
“Martial law is favored by people in Mindanao,” Alunan counters, to which a number of people in the audience respond with boos. “What happened in Jolo is another case in point. I think to the extent that the people in Mindanao are comfortable and safe and secure, because of martial law, then let's grant it to the people of Mindanao.”
Hilbay, echoing Gutoc’s sentiments, responds by asking, “Si President Erap [Estrada], pinasok niya ang Camp Abubakar, nag-deklara ba siya ng batas militar? Hindi. Si Presidente [Noynoy] Aquino, Zamboanga siege, Sulu siege, nagdeklara ba siya ng batas militar?” A portion of the audience, all clad in Hilbay’s dark blue campaign color, shout in unison: “HINDI.”
Before the forum closes, each candidate is given the opportunity to cite the first bill they would enact should they win the elections. Tañada reiterates his stance on instating national minimum wage, Roxas talks about strengthening the Philippine economy, Roque mentions universal healthcare and “libreng tanghalian” for the youth, Hilbay says that as a “batang Tondo” he will prioritize the 4Ps — the [Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program]. Gutoc focuses on peace education and championing diversity, Colmenares echoes Tañada’s stance on national minimum wage and adds that he will work to repeal VAT on fuel, water, and electricity, and Alunan cites educational reform as one of his priorities.
As the candidates make their way outside the Hyundai Hall, supporters mill about the lobby, vying for photo ops and a chance to congratulate their candidates. Gutoc, Tañada, Hilbay, and Alejano take a photo together before they disappear among their supporters — for Gutoc it is mostly young women, for Tañada it is friends and family, for Hilbay it is a group of Tondo residents. Alunan’s supporters — around 20 or so young men and women in red — stand around the entrance waiting for him to emerge. Soon after, supporters board their respective vehicles, the candidates vacate the premises, the lobby empties. The second forum has come to a close.