FOR every four Filipinos, one was poor in 2014, according to government’s count.
Poverty seems such an unshakeable problem that one in every three voters, in a survey last month, said that presidential aspirants should have a clear plan to fight it.
For the first time in 24 years, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) rounded up the leading presidential aspirants last night for a debate that allowed voters to hear their ideas for ending poverty, among other problems.
All five showed up: three lawyers, a first-term senator and the heir presumptive of the Aquino administration. For two hours, they answered questions, questioned some of their fellow candidates’ answers, and threw a few jabs.
On the question of poverty, Vice President Jejomar Binay said he would modernize post-harvest facilities and attract more private capital for infrastructure that would help farmers earn more, if he is elected president.
Sen. Grace Poe said her administration would provide more irrigation facilities, expand crop insurance, and develop agro-industrial zones to help farmers make more from their yields.
She also said that government needs to be more selective in importing agricultural produce, and at the same time grant more subsidies to the poorest farmers. She reiterated a campaign promise that public schools would give pupils free lunch.
But Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who was given the chance to rebut Poe’s statements, said: “Promises are easy to make. Which president has ever reduced poverty? Where are we going to get the money for these programs?”
Addressing her own question, Santiago said she would attempt to spread wealth more evenly by enlarging the budget for health, education, rural infrastructure, and social welfare, and decreasing some taxes, like real estate tax.
Former local government secretary Manuel Roxas II said he would continue social safety nets, like health insurance, as well as provide fishers more access to low-interest credit, modern technology like sonars to locate fish, and post-catch facilities.
“I cannot rebut what he has said because that is all true,” said Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who had the chance to question Roxas. “The problem is we have so many problems to solve. Implementation without corruption is the key.”
Moderator Jessica Soho then asked how he would fight rice cartels that manipulate prices.
“Sus, Ma’am. I’ll do it in three to six months,” said Duterte, who also promised to arrest smugglers, build food terminals and establish credit cooperatives with at least P1B for every region.
The format allowed candidates to answer questions on the same general topics: fighting poverty, growing agriculture, and ensuring peace and order. But their specific questions were different.
Although they had 60 seconds to rebut a fellow candidate’s 90-second answer, most spent their rebuttal times talking about their own
platforms—except for a few jabs.
Moderators asked Poe, who is on her first term in the Senate, if she had enough experience to serve as President.
OJT, old ideas
Roxas said: “A President cannot be an on-the-job trainee. There is a proper time for everything. Mahalaga ang malinis na karanasan (A track record that combines experience with integrity is important).” Roxas’ Liberal Party had spent months trying to persuade Poe to run as his vice presidential candidate instead.
Poe, in her closing statement, said it was time the country stopped trying to fix old problems with the same old solutions.
Roxas also took a hit from Binay, who said he was prone to “paralysis by analysis” and that people in Leyte were furious with him for his “kapalpakan” (failures) after typhoon Yolanda in 2013.
Roxas, who lost the vice presidential election to Binay in 2010, later got his chance to raise doubts on the former Makati City mayor’s record. “Di ba dalawa naman ang Makati? May Makati ng mga Ayala na maunlad at Makati ng mga Binay na mahirap pa rin (Aren’t there two Makatis? There’s the Makati of the Ayalas that has progressed, and there’s the Makati of the Binays, which remains poor),” he said.
Another candidate who questioned Roxas was Duterte. Roxas had said that Mindanao received twice the number of infrastructure projects in the last five years, compared with the 12 years in the combined terms of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo.
Duterte retorted: “Wala akong nakitang tuwid na daan. Puro kulubot naman yan (I saw no straight road. These were all crooked).”
Santiago raised her voice when asked why she still wants to be President when she has just survived cancer and took breaks from the Senate to recover.
“It’s my right to run under the Constitution. Sickness does not disqualify you,” the former immigration commissioner and agrarian reform chief said. “Eh, hindi ako pinatay ng guardian angel ko (My guardian angel decided to keep me alive)!
Of all the candidates, Santiago was the only one present in the 1992 presidential debate as well. She narrowly lost that election to former Armed Forces chief and former defense secretary Fidel Ramos.
All five candidates stayed “on message”, repeating pronouncements they had made before: spending more to help the poor (Binay), pushing for federalism (Duterte), ensuring greater access to public information (Poe), continuing the Aquino administration’s programs (Roxas), and providing leadership marked by “academic, professional and moral excellence” (Santiago).
Poe was the top choice of 30 percent of voters interviewed by Pulse Asia three weeks before last night’s debate.
Thirty percent of the 1,800 voters interviewed said they would vote for her, followed by Binay (23 percent), Duterte (20 percent) and Roxas (20 percent). Four percent of the respondents chose Santiago.
The same polling organization also found out that voters listed poverty among the top five issues they believed the next president should address.
Twenty-nine percent picked “reducing poverty” as a priority, after increasing workers’ pay (38 percent), curbing the widespread sale or use of illegal drugs (36 percent), controlling inflation (30 percent), and fighting corruption in government (30 percent).
Government’s own figures showed that 25.8 million Filipinos lived below the poverty line as of 2014, meaning they earned less than P8,022 each month to feed a family of five.