For the second time since he filed his certificate of candidacy for president, former Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. refused last week to participate in a major forum where fellow presidential candidates are offered a chance to lay out their programs of government and answer questions relevant to their candidacies.

On November 18 last year, five of the leading candidates — Vice President Leni Robredo, Senators Ping Lacson and Manny Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, and, yes, even Senator Christopher Go, who was to withdraw his candidacy as PDP-Laban candidate a few days later — attended a presidential forum organized by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PPCI).

It was, after all, a great opportunity to allow them to expound on their platforms before a group of highly influential businessmen. The candidates knew the prestigious event would be covered by reporters and would be read in newspapers and news broadcasts the following day.

For unspecified reasons, Marcos declined the PCCI invitation.

Robredo, Lacson, Pacquiao, Moreno and Go were asked about their plans on economic recovery amid the pandemic, and their programs for micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to enable them to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. In addition, they were asked to enlighten people about their plans on education, agriculture and fishery, infrastructure and digital transformation, and on what their specific plans were for the first 100 days in office.

All five gave concrete plans if they were elected to lead the nation that has in the past six years grappled with the pandemic, corruption issues, extrajudicial killings, human rights abuses, subservience to China, mounting debts and incoherent leadership.

Although the forum was held just a little more than one month after the deadline for the filing of candidacy and 10 days after the deadline for substitutions, the five leading candidates showed they were ready to assume leadership of a country challenged by crises.

Even Go, who had been accused of being a mere placeholder for someone the PDP-Laban was still wooing, presumably Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, appeared prepared for the presidency. But Marcos was not there to give voters a glimpse of how ready he was to assume the presidency his infamous father held for 20 years.

Last week, the same set of presidential candidates, except for Go who has withdrawn from the race, was invited to an interview with multi-awarded broadcast journalist Jessica Soho in a three-hour program dubbed “Presidential Interviews With Jessica Soho” which was aired last Saturday on GMA-7 platforms in the Philippines and abroad.

Again, it was an opportunity for the candidates to reach out to voters, expound further on their platforms and plans, on free airtime and before a much wider audience. It was also a chance to clarify issues that have been raised against them in the course of the campaign.

The interviews were watched by hundreds of thousands around the globe, and by at least three million more so far in YouTube and Facebook. That certainly beats costly ads in newspapers, TV, radio and other media outlets.

Again, Robredo, Lacson, Pacquiao and Moreno gamely and patiently answered questions by the veteran journalist Jessica Soho on the pandemic, the economy, and other relevant issues – from the issues of divorce, death penalty, political dynasty, the withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, to POGOs, PCGG, the Visiting Forces Agreement, and on the many problems with China.

They were also given the chance to clarify certain issues raised against them, as in the case of Pacquiao his alleged lack of experience, and Lacson, his change of stand on the death penalty, and Moreno, on his moral turpitude.

Again, Marcos wasn’t there. It would have been a good chance for him to explain the many issues that have been raised against him and his family, to “remind” the people how his father, the late President Ferdinand Marcos, “made this country great again,” and detail how he would replicate his father’s infrastructure and other projects.

Marcos’ ever-loyal and capable spokesman, Atty. Victor Rodriguez, said the younger Marcos declined the invitation because he perceived Jessica Soho to be “biased against the Marcoses.” Marcos later confirmed he did not participate because he knew from personal experience that Soho was biased against the Marcoses.

The GMA Network, whose reputation has been boosted by Jessica Soho’s outstanding journalism and her many awards in prestigious TV awarding events in New York and elsewhere through the years, rejected Rodriguez’s claim of bias. Lacson agreed with the network, saying it was Jessica’s job to ask tough questions.

“The questions are tough because the job of the presidency is tough,” the network stressed.

The next day after the Jessica Soho interviews aired without Marcos, it was reported that he has accepted an invitation to be interviewed by Boy Abunda of ABS-CBN, who is known more as interviewer of showbiz personalities, and a DZRH presidential forum with a Manila Times columnist and three DZRH broadcasters.

The Manila Times is owned by Dante Ang, long time publicist of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and special envoy on international public relations of President Rodrigo Duterte. Arroyo and Duterte are part of the MAD + E (Marcos, Arroyo, Duterte and Estrada) dynasties that supports the candidacies of Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte. DZRH is owned by the Elizaldes. That should explain why Marcos readily agreed to attend the program.

Lacson, Pacquiao and Moreno have gamely agreed to join the DZRH forum, but Robredo said she was willing to attend the forum, but that the producers moved it to a later schedule, which, she said, was in conflict with another commitment. She said she would be available if the producers would move it to a later date, to which DZRH has reportedly agreed.

Three more opportunities for the people to gauge the readiness and eligibility of the candidates, and for the candidates to explain their stand on various issues are the upcoming three presidential debates being organized by the Commission on Elections.

All four candidates — Robredo, Lacson, Pacquiao, and Moreno — have expressed readiness, and, in the case of Pacquiao, “excitement,” to join all three debates. But Marcos, as of this writing, has not advised the Comelec if he would join the debates, nor has explained his reluctance to attend them.

The moderators will definitely ask tough questions, and the candidates are expected to ask their rivals’ even tougher questions. But following what the GMA Network said, the candidates should be ready to be asked and to answer tough questions because the president should be able to confront tough issues and problems during the six years of his term. While there will be spokesmen and advisers to help him, he still has to make the ultimate decision. Indeed, if Marcos is not ready to face tough questions, will he be ready to make tough decisions?