Philippine presidential candidates face off in debate

Davao City mayor and presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte (C) is greeted by his political allies during his party's proclamation rally in Manila on February 9, 2016.

The five main Philippine presidential candidates faced off for the first time in a national debate Sunday, vowing to fight corruption and crime if they succeed President Benigno Aquino.

The televised debate was the first in a series aimed at focusing the contest on policy issues, rather than the colourful personalities running in the May presidential election.

But candidate Rodrigo Duterte played up his image of ruthlessness, as he vowed he would wipe out crime, illegal drugs and corruption in just three months by ordering authorities to kill criminals.

"If I become president, it will be bloody because I will order the killing of all criminals," said Duterte who has been accused of abetting death squads as longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao.

The debate, held on the strife-torn southern island of Mindanao, brought together the top contenders seeking to succeed Aquino who is limited by law to one six-year term.

Polls show the frontrunner is Vice President Jejomar Binay, political kingpin of the financial centre of Makati.

Tied for second are Duterte and Senator Grace Poe, the adopted daughter of popular movie star Fernando Poe Jnr.

Aquino's chosen successor, former interior secretary Manuel Roxas, trails behind them with Senator Miriam Santiago in fifth place.

Roxas, who suffers from a colourless image, took the offensive, stressing the need to maintain Aquino's "straight path" policies that are credited with combating corruption and spurring economic growth.

"That is what the straight path has delivered and that is what I will continue," Roxas told a crowd of civic leaders and journalists.

He also questioned Duterte's temper, Poe's experience and accusations of corruption that have dogged Binay.

"Becoming a president is not OJT (on the job training)," he said in a swipe at Poe.

Roxas clashed repeatedly with Binay who defeated him when Roxas ran for vice president in 2010.

President and vice president are elected separately in the Philippines, allowing opposition leader Binay to serve under Aquino.

In one heated exchange Binay accused Roxas of not doing enough when Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the country in November 2013, leaving at least 7,350 dead or missing.

"Many people... are still angry about him because of his failure," Binay said at the nationally-broadcast event.

Roxas said he had been working for days in the disaster zone and accused Binay of merely flying into the area by helicopter to hand out relief goods as a publicity stunt.

"I didn't use our people for photo opportunities and politics," Roxas said.

However, such debates do not necessarily play a pivotal role in Philippine elections, warned Ana Maria Tabunda, research director of think-tank Pulse Asia.

"It will depend much more on what extent candidates are able to get their presence felt... if they are perceived to be sincere," she told AFP.

"People will look at their personal characteristics," Tabunda said.