Philippine candidates grilled on poverty, crime in debate

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Philippine candidates grilled on poverty, crime in debate

In this image provided by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, from left: Vice President Jejomar Binay; Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago; Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of southern Davao city; Sen. Grace Poe; and former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas; raise hands after a presidential candidates debate held in southern Cagayan de Oro city, southern Philippines on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. 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.(Lyn Rillon/Philippine Daily Inquirer via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT, NO SALES

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — One Philippine presidential candidate warned of a bloody presidency, promising to take down criminals and the corrupt in six months. Others pledged to lift many from poverty and offered a way out of daily miseries, including a new way for fishermen to locate catch faster via radar technology.

The five aspirants addressed personal issues, including graft allegations, womanizing, incompetence, a bout with lung cancer and a lack of experience as they squared off Sunday in a nationally televised debate ahead of the May 9 presidential election.

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 through a “people power” revolt.

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.

The candidates were asked how they would fight the long-pestering problems that have blighted their Southeast Asian country through several presidencies.

“If I become president, it would be bloody,” said Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who has gained prominence for his tough anti-crime campaign in southern Davao city, warning he would take down criminals, drug traffickers and corrupt officials in six months if elected.

He acknowledged he has killed an unspecified number of criminals himself but did not provide details, including how he could ease widespread crimes that fast. He has said in the past that he would reimpose the death penalty for heinous crimes and assured he would not resort to extrajudicial killings. Asked about his romantic links to a number of women, Duterte said he had girlfriends after separating with his wife, adding that he did not cause any scandals with his romantic flings.

“All of these happened in a bedroom, not elsewhere, so what’s the problem?” he said.

Former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas pledged to continue the battle against poverty and corruption of Aquino, who backs his candidacy. With the improving economy, more than 2 million Filipinos have risen from poverty under Aquino, he said, promising to expand pro-poor projects like the use of a new radar technology that has helped fishermen find catch faster in one province.

Roxas addressed allegations that he failed to adequately deal with transport and law and order problems in the years he was in government, including his handling of the deadly devastation inflicted by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

Vice President Jejomar Binay said that if elected, he would apply to the entire Philippines what he has done as a mayor to Makati city, the country’s main financial district and Manila’s version of Wall Street. He repeated his denial of allegations of massive corruption, which came under a Senate committee investigation for months.

Sen. Grace Poe, the adopted daughter of a popular movie couple, showcased the bills she has pushed, including a larger budget to help poor farmers and a freedom of information bill that failed to pass. She said her being a political neophyte should not be an issue in a country where longtime politicians have failed to ease basic problems like hunger.

Another candidate, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, said she would crack down on corruption like she has done in her long government career, including as a feisty former trial court judge.

“We are resource rich but one of the poorest in Southeast Asia because everybody wants to have the money of the government in his own pocket,” she said.

Asked why she was seeking the presidency after surviving stage-4 lung cancer and other ailments that sidelined her from the Senate for long stretches of time, Santiago growled. “That’s my right under the constitution,” she said. “I was waiting to die, but my guardian angel did not kill me.”

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,” Elections Chairman 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 election.