Duterte’s allies crush the opposition

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) raises the hands of senatorial candidates during the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas Bayan (PDP-LABAN) in Manila on 11 May, 2019 ahead of the mid-term elections on 13 May. (Noel Celis / AFP Photo)

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's allies were poised for victory in midterm polls, unofficial results showed Tuesday, signalling firm approval of his rule and clearing a path for his most controversial plans.

Duterte's deadly crackdown on narcotics has drawn international censure, but is central to the populist appeal that has buoyed his remarkable popularity among Filipinos since taking the presidency in 2016.

In Monday's vote, administration loyalist candidates for the Senate were headed for a resounding election win, according to data released by the PPCRV, a Catholic-run poll monitor accredited by the government to tally votes.

With 94 percent of ballots counted early Tuesday, Duterte allies were on track to take nine of 12 open seats in the upper house, which has been a bulwark against some of the president's most controversial proposals.

Official, complete results from the nation's elections commission are expected in the coming days.

Historically, the nation's 24 senators – who serve six-year terms – have had a reputation for being more independent-minded than the lower house.

As part of his drug crackdown that has killed more than 5,000 people, Duterte has pledged to bring back the death penalty and lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12.

The Philippines outlawed capital punishment in 1987, reinstated it six years later and then abolished it again in 2006.

He also promised to rewrite the nation's constitution to create a federal republic where regions would be given more power to tackle the nation's deep-rooted poverty.

However, opponents see those plans as an effort to extend his hold on power or weaken the nation's democratic institutions.

"This election just gave Duterte carte blanche to push his brand of governance to its logical conclusion: complete transformation of the nation's political system," analyst Richard Heydarian said. 

More than 18,000 positions were at stake in the vote, primarily local posts, but also half the Senate and nearly 300 seats in the lower House of Representatives.

The polls saw isolated outbursts of violence, which is not unusual in the Philippines' frequently bloody competition for elected seats.

At least 20 people were killed and 24 wounded in election-related violence in the run-up to the vote, according to an official count.

The military said nine people were shot and wounded Monday during a confrontation at a polling station on the southern island of Jolo, which is home to insurgents and powerful local clans.

Turnout was steady throughout the day and voters across the country flooded social media with images of their ink-stained fingernails, which are daubed blue as a protection against voter fraud.

"I voted for many of the candidates endorsed by President Duterte because his government is doing its job," voter Myrna Cruz, 51, said in Manila. 

"I support their programmes, including the anti-drug campaign...but I wish the bloodshed would stop," she added, echoing many Filipinos' nuanced backing of the crackdown.

Duterte, 74, hit the campaign trail to get his supporters into the Senate, giving two-hour speeches at late-night rallies and routinely insulting opponents.

The opposition warns constitutional change could lead to the single-term limit for the presidency being lifted, allowing Duterte to prolong his rule despite his repeated statements that he would stand down at the end of his mandate.

Even if the presidential term limit is not lifted, the Duterte family looks well-placed to prolong its political power.

The president's daughter Sara – eyed by some as his potential successor in the 2022 vote – was poised to keep her post as mayor in the family's southern bailiwick of Davao city.

Her younger brother Sebastian ran unopposed for the city's vice-mayoral seat, while Duterte's eldest son Paolo was on track for a seat in the House of Representatives, PPCRV data showed.

"If you agree with me then you can vote for my candidates," Rodrigo Duterte, who was not on the ballot, told reporters after casting his vote. 

"If I am repudiated by the loss of all my candidates...that's that", he added. - AFP