FORMER President Joseph Estrada snubbed the first ever presidential debate organized by Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) due to prior commitments, his spokesperson said Monday.

“Various delegations from all over the country have sought an audience with former President Joseph Estrada today (Monday) at the PMP headquarters, including delegations from as far as Lanao del Sur and other parts of Mindanao, which President Estrada had to prioritize, for which reason former President Estrada was not able to attend the forum of the Philippine Daily Inquirer at the University of the Philippines this morning,” Margaux Salcedo said in a statement.

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The debate, which took place a day before the official start of the 90-day presidential campaign, was attended by Senators Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, Manuel Villar Jr., Richard Gordon and Jamby Madrigal, ex-Defense Secretary Gilberto "Gibo" Teodoro Jr., televangelist-cum-politician Eddie Villanueva, Olongapo City Councilor JC delos Reyes, and environmentalist Nicanor Perlas.

“We would like to emphasize that President Estrada has tried to accommodate as many forums as possible as his schedule permits, believing in the importance of sharing his platform with voters,” the statement added.

An earlier text message to reporters, meanwhile, quoted Salcedo as saying that Estrada skipped the event due to the newspaper's alleged bias against the former President.

Prior to this, Estrada attended Sunday’s presidential forum sponsored by Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and TV-5, where he told Luchie Cruz-Valdez, TV5 news and current affairs chief, that it was friends who initiated the 1999 advertising boycott against PDI because of its critical news about his presidency.

Estrada was asked by Valdez on how he would guarantee freedom of the press if he returned to power, considering the advertising boycott, which he supposedly led.

The newspaper suffered an 80-percent drop in advertising revenues due to the boycott, with only the Ayala group not heeding the call.

Estrada added that during his impeachment trial, he did not lift a finger even if the media had insinuated he was guilty. “I didn’t stop you. I was very fair during my time.”

The debate, which started around 10:30 a.m., ran for two hours at the University of the Philippines Theater in Diliman, Quezon City.

The candidates were grilled by the broadsheet’s columnists who include former University of the Philippines College of Law Dean Raul Pangalangan, constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas, women’s advocate Rina Jimenez David, UP anthropology professor Michael Tan and former socio-economic planning secretary Cielito Habito.

Homegrown veterans Jorge Aruta (opinion editor), Raul Marcelo (business editor), Fe Zamora (senior political reporter), and Pam Pastor (youth section editor) also partake in the event aired live over radio station DZBB.

The format follows a question directed specifically to each candidate on three areas, namely: Law and Politics, Social Issues, and Economics and Budget.

Some 2,000 tickets were distributed for forum partners such as the UP College of Mass Communication, the Management Association of the Philippines and the Philippine Nursing Association.

Campaign trail kick off

In a related development, candidates are now busy basking into the limelight as the official presidential campaign starts Tuesday.

Estrada’s Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino will hold its proclamation rally at Plaza Miranda in Quiapo, Manila at 4 p.m.

Guest candidates Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. and detained Brigadier General Danilo Lim are expected to attend, along with PMP candidates lawyer JV Bautista, Jose “Joey” de Venecia III, Representative Rodolfo “Ompong” Plaza and Representative Apolinario “Jun” Lozada.

Speeches of the senatorial candidates are slated at 5:30 p.m.

This would be followed by a speech by vice-presidential bet Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay at 6.30 p.m., while Estrada will share his platform and proclamation of his official line-up at 6:45 p.m.

Televangelist Bro. Villanueva, meanwhile, will jumpstart his Palace bid by unfurling the biggest Philippine flag at Rizal park in Manila to be followed by a 10 a.m. press conference in a restaurant near United Nations Avenue.

De los Reyes of Ang Kapatiran party will have a series of activities in his hometown Olongapo City. This would be to be started by a mass and then house-to-house visits and meeting with local candidates.

The 40-year-old councilor, however, will skip a young leaders forum dubbed as ‘i-Vote: The Presidential Youth Dialogue’ at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of the RCBC Plaza set on the same day.

Administration bet Teodoro meanwhile is expected to launch his campaign at the Ynares Gym in Antipolo City, Lakas-Kampi-CMD spokesperson Representative Milagros “Mitos” Magsaysay said.

She said the choice of the venue was determined by former Antipolo congressman and Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno.

As of this writing Monday, other candidates have yet to issue the matters pertaining to their opening day salvo. (Virgil Lopez/Sunnex)