Amid suspicions of voting irregularities, Duterte’s candidates get a clean sweep in midterm elections.
Mindanao, Philippines - June 30, 2019 marks the midpoint in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year presidency, and he is set to begin the second half of his term with even broader powers after his coalition swept Congressional and local elections last week.
On Wednesday, all 12 winning senators were proclaimed by the election commission, increasing Duterte’s majority in the upper house of Congress. The president’s allies also control the lower house, thus giving him more impetus to push forward his legislative agenda, including a change in the constitution, the possible lifting of term limits, a more vigorous drug war, and the revival of the death penalty.
For the first time in 81 years, the opposition suffered a wipe-out after all of its eight senatorial candidates failed to make it into the 12 winning slots. Even Duterte’s closest presidential rival in 2016, Manuel Roxas II, the scion of a former president, lost, prompting an online publication to use the term “midterm massacre”. Another website warned of an “imperial presidency” under Duterte.
Salvador Panelo, the president’s spokesman credited “Duterte magic” for the victory. But he may have unwittingly fed into the opposition and some election watchdogs’ suspicion of vote-counting irregularity. Alarm bells were raised after a seven-hour interruption in vote counting on the night of the election. Hundreds of voting machines and secure digital (SD) cards also malfunctioned.
The Philippines has a long history of poll fraud, and the word “magic” has a different connotation among many Filipino voters.
Comelec, the election body, however, dismissed the allegations of vote-rigging, with one commissioner saying, “there is no cheating or magic”.
Panelo insisted that the results were a clear vote of confidence for the president, and that the voters “yearn for stability and continuity of the genuine reforms that the administration started”.
Ahead of the May 13 election, public polling also showed that Duterte enjoyed an approval rating of about 80 percent. This despite fierce criticism from the church, activists, the opposition, and the international community, over his deadly war on drugs and alleged corruption in government.
Pre-polling data showed that Duterte allies were leading the senatorial race. Among them were the daughter of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the top police chief who led the war on drugs, and a former senator accused of plunder. All three won with Duterte’s endorsement.
The Philippine economy also continued growing, posting a 6.7 percent growth rate in 2017 and 6.2 percent in 2018. Duterte has carried out massive infrastructure projects, including the country’s first subway system, propping up the economy and boosting public perception.
It also did not hurt Duterte’s ruling coalition that the opposition was almost decimated, with many national and local candidates shifting to parties aligned with the president. Even regional parties that ran as the opposition in the provinces pledged their allegiance to Duterte.
'Vindictive and fierce'
One Mindanao political operative, whose candidate remained with the opposition, told TRT World that of all presidents the opposition have encountered, Duterte is the “most vindictive and fierce”. So most local politicians were forced to flip parties and support him, or risk defeat, he said. The source asked not to be named for fear of more political reprisals.
The Mindanao congressional district that the opposition politician represented, has already been stripped of is entire infrastructure budget in 2019, although the Congressional candidate survived in the elections.
Mindanao is the hometown of Duterte and his core sphere of influence.
The same source told TRT World that of all the legislative agenda the president wants to drive forward, changing the constitution may be the toughest, even if he has a majority in Congress. He said Duterte has a narrow “window of opportunity” to push for it in Congress, before the next election cycle begins.
“We've all witnessed how so many previous attempts have failed to change the charter. But who knows what will happen this time. If it does not happen this year, or early 2020, it might not happen at all. It takes a lot of time to get things in order,” he said.
That may be because of the upcoming presidential elections “looming on the horizon” in 2022, said Professor Jean Encinas Franco of the University of the Philippines Department of Political Science.
“Some politicians might already be looking for political space that might affect their decisions and relationship with Duterte,” she told TRT World.
“Politicians would tend to abide by the status quo rather than have a different system by 2022.”
There are several senators who are already seen as possible presidential contenders in 2022, including allies of the president.
Duterte’s daughter, Sara, who is the mayor of their hometown Davao City, is also seen as a possible presidential candidate. She formed a new party for this year’s elections, and endorsed many senatorial candidates supported by her father. But she also angered some of the president’s allies by fielding her own candidates to run against her father’s anointed party in the local races.
“I think the perception that Sara can be a potential presidential candidate is strategic for Duterte,” Franco said.
“He can use that as a bargaining chip so that he is not perceived as a lame-duck president so much.”
Meanwhile, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. said that the election was an endorsement of the president’s war on drugs declaring, “he [Duterte] has just won the war” and the “war goes on”.
In a statement sent to TRT World, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned against Duterte’s former police chief, Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, who led Duterte’s drug war and is now a newly-elected senator.
“However one views the election results, it won’t change the fact that victorious candidates implicated in ‘drug war’ crimes shouldn’t receive a get-out-of-jail-free card,” HRW’s Carlos Conde said.
According to the police, 5,300 drug suspects have been killed in the last three years. The governmental Commission on Human Rights estimates that more than 27,000 have died in the same period.
With Duterte’s resounding midterm victory, there’s no sign that the drug war will end soon.
And it could be even bloodier in the next three years.