Asia Pacific / Politics

In midterm vote, Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte set to gain allies and shut out critics

Bloomberg

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says he hasn’t lost an election in his three-decade political career. He’s hoping his candidates for the midterm vote on Monday will continue that winning streak as voters assess his three years in office.

Even with slowing economic growth and controversial policies including a deadly drug war, the firebrand leader is poised for a majority win in both houses of Congress. Over 18,000 government positions are up for grabs in the midterm elections, including half of the 24-seat Senate and about 300 posts in the House.

Polls opened at 6 a.m. local time, with Duterte scheduled to vote in his hometown in Davao City. Tensions were high across the country hours before the election. Late-night explosions were reported in the southern island in Mindanao, where no one was hurt. There were also early reports of glitches in vote machines.

Philippine Police Chief General Oscar Albayalde said the police had received a “massive” number of vote buying complaints, CNN Philippines reported. About 230 suspects have been arrested. So far, election-related incidents have dropped 60 percent from 2016 national elections, Albayalde said. As of early Monday, 20 have been killed while 24 were injured. That compares with 106 violent incidents for the same period in 2016.

Opinion polls predict Duterte and his allies will dominate the race over a divided opposition. This could speed up policy implementation, including tax reform and his plan to move the country to a federal system of government. But it could also have negative implications for Philippine democracy by removing one of the last checks on Duterte’s power.

A big win will help Duterte push his policy priorities in the last three years of his term when leaders typically lose support, said Marthe Hinojales, senior Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. “In the case of a sweeping Duterte-ally win in the Senate, two reforms that we expect to gain ground in legislature are the next phase of reforms — the bill lowering corporate taxes and federalism proposals — which can bring about regulatory uncertainty.”

The opposition has remained “disorganized” and “fragmented” since the 2016 presidential elections, said Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at the John Cabot University in Italy. Duterte’s critics from the Liberal Party and leftist groups fielded different Senate bets and campaigned separately.

“They are making this election about Duterte and that only reinforces Duterte,” said Welsh, who specializes in Southeast Asian politics.

It’s likely Duterte’s opponents will be almost completely shut out in the Senate race, said University of the Philippines political science professor Aries Arugay. “This reflects his ability to control an electoral contest,” Arugay said. “You still have a very formidable incumbent administration.”

Pulse Asia’s latest pre-election survey shows only one opposition candidate for the Senate — incumbent Senator Bam Aquino, a cousin of the former president — has a shot at winning. The last time a lone opposition candidate won a midterm Senate seat was in 1967, under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Duterte has attacked opposition candidates in his campaign speeches — from calling them gay to making fun of their teeth. Despite criticisms against his drug war that has killed thousands and his government’s pursuit of critics including journalist Maria Ressa, Duterte remains widely popular. Latest poll shows his satisfaction rating is back to a record high.

Amid reports in local media of vote buying for as low as 20 pesos ($0.40), Duterte told supporters on Friday it’s okay to accept money so they could pay for their transport home after voting. Buying and selling votes is prohibited under Philippine election law.

“Those who will be elected in Congress will be the administration’s partners, so it’s better if the winners are the ones endorsed by the President,” Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said at a briefing before the vote.

A majority win for Duterte’s allies in the Senate and House contests may have bigger implications for Philippine democracy, said Lee Morgenbesser, a Southeast Asia expert from Griffith University in Australia. Incumbent senators have investigated Duterte’s drug war, and also blocked controversial measures including his federalism push and his plan to reinstate death penalty.

“Since Duterte has seized control of the lower house through pork-barrel politics, stacked the high court with loyalists and launched assaults on media outlets, the Senate is the last real roadblock to him further eroding democracy in the Philippines,” Morgenbesser said.

Beyond the midterms, the opposition can capitalize on issues where it can garner public support — particularly Duterte’s closeness with China — if it wants a fighting chance in the 2022 presidential elections, Arugay said.

“The territorial dispute with China is an issue that can evolve into Duterte’s waterloo, mainly if he will be painted as favoring foreigners over Filipinos,” Arugay said.