The Philippines’ Commission on Elections on Wednesday certified 12 new senators who are mostly allies of President Rodrigo Duterte, giving him majority control of the Senate as he prepares to enter the second half of a six-year term amid widespread opposition to his drug war.
Among those proclaimed were Bong Go, Duterte’s longtime aide, and Ronald dela Rosa, the ex-national police chief who spearheaded the first phase of the president’s anti-narcotics campaign.
“We expect a majority of 20 senators,” Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto told reporters, referring to the upper house legislators aligned with Duterte.
Millions of Filipinos voted for 18,000 posts up for grabs in the May 13 election, but the most closely-watched balloting was the race for the 12 seats in the bicameral legislature. The opposition Liberal Party did not win any of seats in the latest polls, leaving the 24-member senate with 4 opposition members.
Cynthia Villar, who garnered the most votes at more than 25 million, spoke on behalf of the winners allied with Duterte and thanked the president and his daughter, Sara Duterte, for supporting their campaign. The new senators also posed for a group photograph where all but two of them raised a clenched fist, a symbol associated with Duterte.
Critics said the election’s outcome would boost Duterte’s agenda and weaken the Senate’s independence, but Senator-elect Go, who rose to fame on social media with his selfies with world leaders, dismissed such criticisms.
“Do I look like a rubber stamp?” he told reporters.
Murder complaints against Duterte
“It looks like all the bases are covered for either a cover-up or a campaign to frustrate accountability for the drug war killings,” Carlos Conde, Asia researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, told BenarNews.
“This election not only entrenched the Dutertes and their allies,” he said, “it also made sure that accountability will not happen.”
Two murder complaints have been filed against the 74-year-old leader before The Hague-based International Criminal Court, but Duterte’s spokesmen have rejected those allegations.
The first complaint was filed by a former police official and a self-confessed hitman who claimed that they carried out killings on Duterte’s order. The other one was filed by relatives of those slain in the drug war, which according to official police statistics have left almost 5,300 suspected addicts and dealers dead in shootouts with law-enforcement officers.
Other non-government agencies said the death toll could be up to 30,000, with many of the victims summarily executed and their bodies left with cardboard signs claiming they were drug suspects.
After initially saying that the Philippines would honor any investigation, Duterte later pulled out from an international treaty that created the ICC, saying the court did not have jurisdiction to launch a probe in the country. The ICC said it was saddened by the move, but said it would continue its investigation.
The Senate has been the last independent bastion against Duterte's wishes. Last year, it had shielded Sen. Antonio Trillanes from arrest on rebellion charges. Trillanes, an ardent critic of Duterte’s drug war, led hundreds of soldiers in a mutiny in 2003, when he was a Navy lieutenant. He bows out of the Senate this year.
Conde alleged that with dela Rosa’s election “the thousands of victims of the drug war are victimized twice over.”
Dela Rosa has staunchly defended the drug war and the brutal methods of his policemen. During the bruising senatorial campaign, he justified the massive death toll by saying that “if many believe that the number of drug addicts has gone down, then somehow, we are successful.”
Asked by reporters Wednesday about what he would do in the Senate, dela Rosa was evasive, but said: “I am now a senator. I am happy.”
Meanwhile, another senator against the bloody anti-narcotics campaign, Leila de Lima, is in jail and facing what she has described as trumped-up charges of profiting from drug trafficking.
De Lima said she was initially stunned by the poll results, but that eventually turned into a “deep and acute sense of disappointment.”
“This loss was hard, painful,” she said. “But we should not give up because this fight is perhaps the most important fight of our entire history as a nation. We are fighting for our future, our children's future. We are fighting for our soul as a nation.”
Jason Gutierrez in Manila; Jojo Rinoza in Dagupan and Jeoffrey Maitem and Dennis Jay Santos in Davao City contributed to this report.