PRESIDENTIAL candidate Richard Gordon scored Senators Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III and Manuel Villar Jr. for skipping Sunday’s presidential forum sponsored by the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting and TV-5.

This came as the outgoing lawmaker replied to a question posed by his nephew, councilor JC de los Reyes, who asked whom he would vote for between Aquino and Villar.

For updates from around the country, follow Sun.Star on Twitter

"That’s why all these very good candidates are running because we can't choose from any one of them. Where are they anyway?” Gordon replied, drawing loud cheers at the jam-packed Marian Auditorium of Miriam College in Quezon City.

"In a democratic society, it is permissible to ask your leaders questions,” he added.

Aside from Gordon, the other five who attended "Pagbabago 2010" were former President Joseph Estrada, Senator Jamby Madrigal, televangelist Eddie Villanueva, environmentalist Nicanor “Nick” Perlas, and Olongapo councilor JC de los Reyes.

Conspicuously absent during the two-hour debate at Miriam College were survey rivals Aquino and Villar, former Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and Kilusang Bagong Lipunan's Vetallano Acosta.

Organizers said all candidates confirmed their attendance to the forum, but due to “unexplained circumstances” the three sent their apologies.

The debate consists of four rounds: 1. Face-off between candidates 2. Panel grilling 3. Questions from different sectors 4. "Candidates' Firsts" (explanation of the first things on first day of duty as president).

When it was Gordon's turn to ask question, he asked Perlas if he agreed that voters should have a change of consciousness on surveys and political advertisements.

In response, Perlas called in the voters to be more critical and conscious in making electoral decisions because the future is at stake.

“Our country is now in disarray because we have leaders elected by virtue of their high survey ratings. We have to wake up as a nation. Surveys are not an instrument in digesting burning issues of the day,” Perlas said.

"Forums are a form of people's primaries to give the voters a chance to understand their candidates and get rid of shallow politics,” he added.

The environmentalist said a presidential forum is the “best way” for candidates to properly explain their vision for the country, their platforms, track record, and their stand on issues of integrity and ethics.

”Let’s make 2010 the most conscientious vote ever,” Perlas ended.

JC lauds Erap admin

In another face-off, Estrada asked de los Reyes if the country was better during the nine-year rule of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo than his abbreviated presidency. The youngest presidential contender then answered negatively.

“We are not better off today. It’s obvious that you have better performed in governance than your successor,” de los Reyes said, adding that he was happy of the former president’s directive before on the removal of sovereign guarantees on contracts for public projects.

Estrada, meanwhile, said he would be more careful in giving trust to anyone as part of his resolutions if granted a second term.

“There are some people whom I trusted before who turned their backs on me, who deliberately conspired for my ouster,” Estrada said in reply to Senator Madrigal’s query on his new political strategies.

The former president, meanwhile, said he would leave it up to the courts to decide if President Arroyo is indeed guilty on various graft and corruption allegations.

“I have to follow the due process of law. We have to tap the judiciary. I will not interfere on the cases to be filed against them (the Arroyos). This is in respect to the judiciary as a co-equal branch of government,” Estrada said.

‘Total overhaul’

In a related development, Villanueva said the only key for the country’s progress relies on the total overhaul of government agencies like the Commission on Audit, Department of Justice, and the Office of the Ombudsman.

He will also create task forces of lawyers and accountants to resolve pending corruption cases within 30 days and right appointments to the military and police.

”We need to demonstrate political will, as well as the institution of moral fiber in our society. We have to put righteous moral leadership in this campaign,” he said.

Sector issues

The candidates were also asked on their views on different topics concerning sectors like women, education, persons with disability, Muslim affairs, ethnic groups, and labor.

Estrada said only a peaceful country can attract investments that would result to job opportunities while insisting that wanted lasting peace in Mindanao, not a war of attrition against the Muslim rebels.

Madrigal added that removing political patronage equals the dissolution of political warlordism in the country, particularly in Mindanao.

“If you have a corrupt military, war means money. If you have a corrupt president, then you have to make your generals happy,” the senator said.

She added the Ampatuan clan, suspected mastermind of the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao province, should be charged with death penalty, if possible, for the gruesome murders.

Peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front should also be pursued, Madrigal said.

The candidates were also grilled by panelists consisted of the

following: University of the East College of Law Dean Amado Valdez (Governance), 2009 CNN Hero of the Year Efren Penaflorida (Youth), TV5 Head of News and Public Affairs Luchi Cruz-Valdez (Media), University of Asia and Pacific professor Bernie Villegas (Economy), Greenpeace Southeast Asia executive director Von Hernandez.

Candidates said they support the implementation of “genuine reform” program and financial support to farmers should be a priority. Perlas and Madrigal also raised the land-grabbing issue on ancestral lands.

De los Reyes, meanwhile, blamed corrupt officials for the reported worsening poverty in the country while Villanueva stressed the need for more budgetary allocation to education.

As to their first agenda once elected, Gordon said he would appoint his running mate, former Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chairman Bayani Fernando as his “infrastructure czar,” citing his civil engineering background.

Madrigal said she would appoint Perlas to be her agriculture secretary whose primary task is to run after rice smugglers and implementation of safe farming methods.

The forum was taped and will be aired on Sunday night over TV-5. (Virgil Lopez/Sunnex)