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Hopefuls spar over poverty in presidential debate

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines -- Presidential candidates hoping to succeed incumbent Benigno Aquino traded barbs Sunday over helping millions of poor Filipinos in the nation's first presidential debate in nearly two and a half decades.

     The elections commission last organized a debate in 1992, the first national poll since the "people power" uprising that toppled a 20-year dictatorship and restored democracy.

     A quarter of the population remains poor despite average economic growth of 6.2% under Aquino. Vice President Jejomar Binay set the tone early in the presidential debate, pouncing on the Aquino government's failure to lift millions out of poverty.

     "Before and now, poverty remains our country's problem," Binay said. "I grew up poor and experienced poverty, and I addressed it as mayor of Makati."

     Manuel Roxas, Aquino's anointed successor, went on the defensive during a debate that centered on agricultural policy, peace and security, government corruption, and development in Mindanao. He argued that the improving economy had lifted 2 million households out of poverty.

     The Feb. 21 debate was the first held in Mindanao, an underdeveloped but resource-rich island in the south, and candidates took turns appealing to the locals.

     "We need an empathetic government," Sen. Grace Poe said. "We propose 30% of the national budget go to Mindanao to fast-track its development."

     For Mindanao native Rodrigo Duterte, federalism is the way to go: Devolve the central government's powers to local units. The bulk of infrastructure projects go to Metro Manila, he said.

     Observers said the two-hour-plus debate lacked the punches expected in a presidential contest, with some candidates openly supporting policy directions of rivals.

     "That's not a debate," political analyst Ramon Casiple said. "That's a mutual admiration session. You cannot find out really if there is anything different in their programs."

     Philippine political parties are formed around personal interests, not shared ideologies. J. Prospero de Vera, professor of public administration at the University of the Philippines, said Poe's mastery of issues, Duterte's familiarity with Mindanao, and Binay's stable presentation made the most significant performances during the debate.

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