MANILA, Philippines—The five Philippine presidential candidates were grilled in a nationally televised debate Sunday on how they would fight the long-pestering problems of poverty, corruption and crime that have blighted their Southeast Asian nation through several presidencies.
Commission on Elections Chairman Andres Bautista said the two-hour debate, the first to be organized by the commission in 24 years, aimed to shift the public’s focus toward policy talk and programs to confront social ills.
Voters being swayed more by personalities, patronage politics and showbiz-like campaigns have long been a concern in the Philippines, which continues to grapple with widespread poverty, Marxist and Muslim insurgencies, corruption and other major problems three decades after toppling a dictatorship via a “people power” revolt.
The elections commission brought back the presidential debates, which were last held in 1992, to allow Filipino voters to scrutinize the main contenders and help them “vote correctly,” Bautista said. After Sunday’s debate, held at a university in southern Cagayan de Oro city, two more will be staged in March and April ahead of the May 9 election.
The candidates were asked questions on a range of issues, including their anti-poverty and anti-crime strategies and how they would solve the decades-long Muslim insurrection in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
President Benigno Aquino III, who won with a landslide margin on a promise to battle poverty and corruption in 2010, ends his six-year term in June.
Under Aquino, the economy has been growing steadily. His predecessor has been detained on an elections fraud charge and three senators were separately detained on corruption charges under Aquino’s anti-graft fight.
But daunting challenges remain, led by the poverty that grips about a fourth of the Philippines’ 100 million people, forcing about a tenth of the population to seek jobs and better opportunities abroad.
The presidential contenders are Vice-President Jejomar Binay; Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of southern Davao city, where he has carved an image for his tough anti-crime campaign; Sen. Grace Poe, the adopted daughter of a popular movie couple; former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who has been endorsed by Aquino; and Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a feisty former trial court judge.