Filipinos cast their ballots Monday to elect half of the Senate and thousands of local executives during midterm elections largely expected to solidify President Rodrigo Duterte’s grip on legislative power, allowing him to prolong his deadly anti-drugs campaign in the last three years of his term.
The polls, in which more than 61 million registered to vote, were largely peaceful, but saw scattered violence especially in the southern region of Mindanao, police said. The region remains under martial law imposed by Duterte two years earlier to counter Islamic State-linked militants.
Duterte spoke briefly to reporters in his southern hometown Davao shortly after voting, and acknowledged that the polling was a bellwether of sorts on his presidency.
“It could be. It could be taken as one referendum. So that if you agree with me, then you can vote for my candidates or the people I am supporting this election,” Duterte said.
"Now if I am repudiated by the loss of all candidates coming from the Hugpong slate, then that would indicate that the majority of the people do not like me," he said, citing the name of his daughter's political party, under which his candidates ran.
He said that while early results showed his candidates in the lead, “I would always place the odds at 50-50.”
Official results would be announced in a few days, according to the Commission on Elections.
The police and military deployed about 300,000 men nationwide, although the heightened security failed to prevent an outbreak of violence especially in far-flung provinces in the south.
Voters cast their ballots to choose half of the 24 member Senate, nearly 300 congressmen, as well as thousands of local posts, from governors to mayors and councilors,
Days before the vote, Duterte had gone on the last leg of the campaign and urged the public to vote for his candidates as he attacked the opposition as a bunch of inexperienced politicians out to thwart his government’s agenda.
“I still have three years,” he said Saturday, as he vowed his drug war would go on. “No quarters given, no quarters asked, as long as it involves drugs.”
He also hit out at the opposition slate, which includes eight personalities, only two of whom stand a chance, according to latest poll surveys.
Opposition senatorial candidate Chel Diokno, a human rights lawyer, has emerged as a popular choice among university students. His Free Legal Assistance Group has been assisting families of alleged drug users killed in Duterte’s bloody drugs war.
Early, unofficial results hours after the vote showed Diokno lagging in the count, with one-time Duterte personal aide, Bong Go, and the president’s ex-police chief, Ronald dela Rosa, in the winning circle.
Hoping for an independent Senate
Diokno conceded that he made up his mind about running for office a little too late. After casting his ballot, he thanked all his supporters and said he fought a fair fight at the grassroots level.
“We hope that it produces an independent Senate, one that provides adequate checks and balances to this administration,” Diokno told BenarNews. “Without this, we are wary that our country may descend further into lawlessness, that we will lose more of our territory and natural resources to China and that a new constitution that favors political dynasties will be railroaded through Congress.”
National police chief Gen. Oscar Albayalde said a shooting incident in the southern Island town of Panglima Estino in Sulu left nine people wounded.
At least three bomb explosions were also recorded in the south, two of them in Maguindanao province, and another in the city of Marawi, which remains under tight military control, he said.
“The opening hours of balloting in the country's more than 36,830 voting centers turned out to be relatively peaceful,” Albayalde said.
He said that since campaign season began early this year until Monday, more than 43 incidents have been recorded, with 20 people killed and 24 wounded. More than 5,000 people were also arrested for violating a nationwide gun ban.
Albayalde said that five people were wounded in gunfights outside a polling precinct in Panglima Estino town in the far-flung southern province of Sulu, but that the “situation is under control and investigation is ongoing to identify the suspects.”
Police officers had received reports of massive vote-buying allegedly involving local candidates, Albayalde said.
In Cotabato City, at least three grenade explosions occurred outside the city hall around 10 p.m. Sunday night before the distribution of election paraphernalia but there were no reported casualties, said police commander Col. Michael Lebanan.
In the nearby town of Datu Odin Sinsuat in Maguindanao province, a loud explosion also occurred a few hours before polling centers opened on Monday. In Parang town, five bystanders outside a polling center were wounded when they were attacked by unknown gunmen at nooon, authorities said.
Despite the security concerns, the voting went on but several vote counting machines malfunctioned, prompting officers to resort to manual voting.
Former Vice President Jejomar Binay cast his vote in Manila, but the vote-counting machine malfunctioned and rejected his accomplished ballot.
“I was disappointed. Eight times my accomplished ballot was rejected,” he told reporters as he claimed he doubted the integrity of the midterm elections.
A referendum on the drug war
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned on Monday that the controversial drug war is likely to continue in the remaining years of Duterte’s presidency as administration candidates were dominating in the polls, according to partial, and unofficial results.
“The election is a referendum on Duterte’s bloody reign. Looks like administration party will dominate. That is scary because this means there will be Duterte clones in years ahead. The ‘drug-war’ killings will not stop,” Carlos Conde, a researcher for the HRW in Asia, said in a statement.
Richard Javad Heydarian, a political analyst at De La Salle University in Manila, said that only about 15 percent of Filipinos were categorically committed to democracy, while the rest were either comfortable with Duterte or preferred to stay on the sidelines.
Heydarian said that of the eight or nine administration candidates that could win, only two of them, dela Rosa and Go, are solid Duterte allies. The rest are just going along with him, but are likely to also keep their own counsel.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Dennis Jay Santos in Davao City, Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro, Richel V. in Iligan; and Luis Liwanag and Jojo Rinoza in Manila contributed to this report.