Singapore Markets open in 4 hrs

Duterte Allies Lead in Early Count in Philippines Midterm Vote

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte interacts with his supporters at the PhilSports Multi-Purpose Arena in Pasig City on May 11, 2019. (Photo: KING RODRIGUEZ/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO)

By Andreo Calonzo and Philip J. Heijmans

Allies of President Rodrigo Duterte are leading in an early count of the Senate vote in what the Philippine leader sees as an affirmation of his three-year administration.

Nine of Duterte’s allies are among 12 leading senatorial candidates, based on latest poll body data with 0.4% of the votes counted. His favored candidate and former aide, Bong Go, is in third place. The lone opposition candidate within striking distance to land a seat is Senator Bam Aquino, who’s ranked 13th. While counting began when polling stations closed at 6 p.m. local time, those still in queues are still being allowed to exercise their vote.

Hundreds of malfunctioning machines and dozens of arrests for suspected vote buying marred the elections for more than 18,000 government positions, including half of the 24-seat Senate and about 300 House of Representatives posts. Those who agree with his policies likely voted for his candidates, Duterte told reporters after voting in Davao City.

“If I’m repudiated by the loss of my candidates, that could indicate that the majority doesn’t want me,” the president said. Early results are proving otherwise, even with slowing economic growth and his controversial policies including a deadly drug war.

Winning Streak

Opinion polls have predicted that allies of Duterte will dominate the race over a divided opposition. Duterte, 74, hasn’t lost an election in his three-decade political career and is enjoying record high popularity as president despite criticisms against his drug war that has killed thousands and his government’s pursuit of critics including journalist Maria Ressa,

The winners of the 12 senator seats will be proclaimed within the week, Commission on Elections spokesman James Jimenez said. The last time a lone opposition candidate won a midterm Senate seat was in 1967, under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Violence eased compared with the 2016 vote, police chief Oscar Albayalde said. The police recorded 20 deaths and 24 injuries since the start of the election season in mid-January. That compares with 106 violent incidents for the same period in 2016.

Last Checks

A victory for Duterte’s allies in the Senate 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.

Of the 12 leading candidates for the Senate, only Grace Poe, Nancy Binay and Lito Lapid were absent from Duterte’s list and that of his daughter, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte. These three politicians escaped the president’s attacks during in his campaign speeches -- he reserved the bulk of his anger for those from the opposition Liberal Party coalition.

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."

Weak Opposition

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 also 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.

‘Last Roadblock’

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.

(Updates with early count.)

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P