Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appears to have scored a victory in a national election of legislators and local executives, with his allies poised to win most of 12 contested Senate seats in a midterm vote regarded as a referendum on his controversial administration.
The newly elected senators are likely to push Duterte’s agenda and protect him from legislative inquiry, boosting his already favourable numbers in the 24-seat higher chamber of the Philippine Congress.
An unofficial tally of results based on parallel transmissions from official precinct ballot scanners indicates that nine pro-administration candidates won Monday’s vote, along with three candidates who ran independently of both the administration and the opposition.
The opposition’s eight candidates have just about conceded defeat but are holding out for one possible spot for Bam Aquino, who ranked 14th with more than 95 percent of votes unofficially counted.
The vote affirmed public confidence in Duterte’s three-year-old administration which has been characterised by a brutal approach to law and order and rhetoric that strikes a chord among Filipinos disillusioned with past administrations that have mostly failed to lift the masses from poverty.
The opposition and Duterte’s critics had hoped to gain more representation in the Senate to increase its ability to keep the president in check and seek accountability for human rights abuses in his “war on drugs”.
Another goal was to block his proposal to redraft the constitution to shift the country towards a federal government – a move that may allow Duterte and other politicians to stay in power indefinitely.
China also figured heavily as an election issue, with the opposition accusing Duterte of “selling out” to Beijing with a spree of big-ticket loan agreements while neglecting to assert the Philippines’s sovereignty claim over parts of the South China Sea.
Whereas there used to be six opposition voices in the Senate, this recomposition leaves it with only four, including Senator Leila De Lima who has been in jail on spurious drug trafficking charges ever since she ran a probe into Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.
The pro-administration candidates poised to win Senate seats include Cynthia Villar, the wealthiest Filipino senator in 2017 with a net worth of about $69m; Ronald dela Rosa, a national police chief who operated Duterte’s “war on drugs” during the early part of his presidency; and Bong Go, Duterte’s longtime personal aide who was Special Assistant to the President before he ran for senator. Duterte once called him a “billionaire businessman”.
Duterte faced criticism for supporting some candidates who have themselves or their families been accused of corruption, contrary to his platform of cracking down on corrupt officials.
The opposition also questioned his choice of Imee Marcos – the daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who embezzled billions of dollars when he ruled from 1965 to 1986 – and Bong Revilla, who was recently acquitted of plunder but owes the national treasury the equivalent of $2.3m in missing congressional funds that he still could not account for.
Both Marcos and Revilla are expected to win Senate seats.
‘Alter egos of the president’
Critics also said Duterte picked his candidates primarily for their loyalty to him and not whether they would make suitable legislators.
Once when asked by reporters for comment on the Philippines’s inflation rate, dela Rosa said he had little knowledge about the economy, and that as senator he would rather focus on law and order.
Defending the anti-drug campaign during a political rally in the capital, Manila, Go said he was willing to go to jail with Duterte for it.
“That is how much I love the president,” Go reportedly told the crowd, adding that as a senator he supported Duterte’s programme and legislative agenda.
Although the other pro-administration candidates were not as explicit about their devotion or loyalty to Duterte, they are not known to have publicly criticised him or his policies.
Analyst Jose Antonio Custodio, of the Manila-based Institute for Policy, Strategy and Development Studies, called the victory of the pro-administration candidates a “deluge of misfits and subpar legislators whose loyalty is to Duterte and not to the institution and the republic”.
Richard Heydarian, an analyst and author of The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy, said the entry into the Senate of personalities such as Go and Dela Rosa, and even of boxing champion Manny Pacquiao in 2016, showed a “democratisation” of Filipinos’ understanding of who qualifies as a senator.
“The idea that you need to be a lawyer or have a high level of familiarity with legislation to qualify as a senator is out the window,” Heydarian told Al Jazeera.
“What I am concerned about, more than their qualifications, is that they are fundamentally alter egos of the president. Will they be able to fulfil their oversight function and respect the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative?”
Custodio said: “The new Senate will practically follow the general direction of Duterte’s legislative agenda”, but added that the remaining opposition and non-administration senators could be expected to take a critical stand on certain issues.
Although generally supportive of Duterte, the current Senate has tempered some of his more contentious programmes such as constitutional amendments or his attempt at reinstating the death penalty.
A few hitches
Some 61 million Filipinos were registered to vote in Monday’s polls. The Commission on Elections has yet to announce how many actually voted, but it said it expected a voter turnout of at least 75 percent.
Problems with electronic ballot-scanning machines and their memory cards interrupted voting in several hundred poll precincts, but voting went on smoothly in more than 85,000 precincts across the country of 7,000-plus islands.
A few hours after polls closed on Monday evening, an interruption in the electronic transmission of results to a secondary server monitored by poll watchdogs and the news media raised suspicions of irregularity and fraud. The electoral commission dismissed it as a mere technical difficulty when it was resolved several hours later.
The commission said they will investigate the glitches, but all in all the election was “generally successful”.
The winners will be officially declared in the coming weeks.