Philippines midterms: Voters head to polls in a test for Duterte

Philippines midterms: Voters head to polls in a test for Duterte

Manila, Philippines – Up at the crack of dawn to beat long queues and the sweltering summer heat, Filipinos on Monday headed to the schoolyards and other public halls designated as their poll precincts, in an election for legislators and local executives that is expected to strengthen President Rodrigo Duterte‘s hold on power halfway into his term.

Polls officially opened at 6am local time (22:00 GMT on Sunday) and will close at 6pm (10:00 GMT).

More than 61 million Filipinos are registered to vote in the midterm polls, with roughly 43,000 candidates vying for some 18,000 government posts.

The highest positions at stake are 12 seats in the Senate to recompose half of the higher congressional chamber already dominated by senators allied or supportive of Duterte’s administration.

Voter preference surveys by private pollsters predict a favourable outcome for the administration, with its senatorial candidates poised to win up to two-thirds of the contested seats.

Although mostly supportive of Duterte, the current Senate has so far tempered his more polarising objectives, such as reinstating the death penalty or redrafting the constitution to change the form of government from unitary to federal – a move that may allow Duterte to stay in power indefinitely.

Philippines midterm polls a test on Rodrigo Duterte’s popularity (2:51)

Critics have expressed fears that a victory for Duterte’s allies would reduce the Senate’s independence and prevent it from keeping a check on the president, whom they expect to further push for his platforms as his single six-year term enters its home run.

“Clearly, there are few who make a stand in the government nowadays,” said Senator Leila De Lima, jailed for illegal drug charges after she ran an investigation on thousands of killings in Duterte’s “war on drugs”.

“Our institutions lack voices for justice and truth. Many fear persecution and choose to kowtow just to stay in power,” she said in a statement on Monday.

One of only four incumbent opposition senators, De Lima urged voters to “reject the liars, the corrupt, the plunderers!”

This was a clear jab at Duterte’s senatorial slate, which includes two former senators charged with plunder and a daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The campaign by a coalition of senatorial candidates opposed to Duterte called “Otso Diretso” or “Eight Straight” issued similar criticism against Duterte and his candidates.

The opposition candidates also questioned Duterte’s China-friendly policies in light of Beijing’s occupation of areas in the South China Sea within the Philippines‘ exclusive economic zone, and demanded accountability for drug war killings, which some watchdogs said have reached more than 20,000.

However, the opposition bloc appears unlikely to win many Senate seats. The latest voter preference survey indicated only one of them will probably succeed: Bam Aquino, a cousin of former President Benigno Aquino.

Analysts say that despite that fierce criticism of Duterte’s administration, the opposition bloc’s campaign failed to sway most voters, who are still counting on the president’s promise of “change” in terms of alleviating poverty and combatting criminality.

Filipinos voting at a polling center in Manila [Aaron Favila/AP Photo]

Meanwhile, as voters headed to poll precincts, the Commission on Elections cautioned them against operators from candidates who would offer to pay them for their votes.

“Vote-buying” is one of the most serious concerns in the Philippines’ electronically-automated elections. The commission has reported dozens of such cases even before the polls opened, and it said many more instances go undetected.

Candidates proven to have attempted to buy votes are charged with a grave election offence, jailed and disqualified from public office. However, very few cases are brought to justice.

Initial results are expected within hours after polls close, and the winners will be officially declared in the coming weeks.

The last midterm election, in 2013, yielded a 77 percent voter turnout.

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