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Duterte allies seek to dominate polls

President’s daughter revels in midterms spotlight

In this May 8 photo, opposition senatorial candidates (from left), Samira Gutoc, Mar Roxas, Gary Alejano, Romulo Macalintal, Florin Hilbay, Paolo Benigno ‘Bam’ Aquino IV, Erin Tanada and Jose Manuel ‘Chel’ Diokno, acknowledge the cheers of the crowd during their last campaign rally together for the May 13 mid-term elections in suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte’s name is not on the ballot but Monday’s mid-term elections are seen as a referendum on his phenomenal rise to power, marked by his gory anti-drug crackdown and his embrace of China. (AP)

MANILA, May 12, (Agencies): Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s name is not on the ballot, but Monday’s midterm elections are seen as a crucial referendum on his rise to power with a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs, unorthodox style and contentious embrace of China.

Nearly 62 million Filipinos have registered to choose among 43,500 candidates vying for about 18,000 congressional and local posts in one of Asia’s most rambunctious democracies. The most crucial race is for 12 seats in the 24-member Senate, which Duterte wants to fill with allies to bolster his legislative agenda. That includes the return of the death penalty, lowering the age for criminal liability of child offenders and revising the country’s 1987 constitution primarily to allow a shift to a federal form of government, a proposal some critics fear may be a cover to remove term limits.

Opposition aspirants consider the Senate the last bastion of checks and balances given the solid dominance of Duterte’s loyalists in the lower House of Representatives. Last year, opposition senators moved to block proposed bills they feared would undermine civil liberties. Duterte’s politics and key programs, including his drive against illegal drugs that has left more than 5,200 mostly urban poor suspects dead, have been scrutinized on the campaign trail and defended by close allies running for the Senate, led by his former national police chief Roland dela Rosa, who first enforced the crackdown when the president took office in mid-2016.

Aside from the drug killings, Duterte’s gutter language and what nationalists say is a policy of appeasement toward China that may undermine Philippine territorial claims in the South China Sea, have also been hounded by protests and criticism.

“This is very much a referendum on his three years of very disruptive yet very popular presidency,” Manilabased analyst Richard Heydarian said. “Are we going to affirm or are we going to reject the 2016 elections? Was that an aberration and historical accident that we have to fix, or is this actually the beginning of the kind of new era or new normal?” A May 3-6 survey by independent pollster Pulse Asia showed 11 of Duterte-backed senatorial candidates and four other aspirants in the winning circle, including only one from the opposition. The survey of 1,800 respondents had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. Duterte himself remains hugely popular, topping ratings surveys with about 70 percent approval.

While the election survey strongly indicated a favorable outcome for Duterte, there was a probability that the result could still change given the considerable number of undecided voters and narrow leads of some candidates. Divided, cash-strapped and without a unified leader, opposition aspirants are fighting an uphill battle to capture the few number of Senate seats they need to stymie any hostile legislation.

Many Filipinos seem more open to authoritarianism due to past failures of liberal leaders, Heydarian said. Such a mindset has helped the family of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos to make a political comeback.

Among many dirt-poor Filipinos, however, the concern is day-to-day survival. During Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s first two years in office, his daughter Sara had barely any interest in politics. One year on, she is front and centre in a midterm election that she isn’t even running in, playing kingmaker for candidates allied with her father in what’s being widely seen as a not-sosubtle trial balloon for her own presidential run in 2022.

Monday’s elections are to a great extent a referendum on the Duterte administration, testing his popularity and giving him a chance to tighten his grip on power by retaining his Congressional majority, and keeping the opposition on the fringes of the allimportant Senate for the remainder of his term. Sara Duterte opted out of running for the Senate, choosing instead to manage the campaign of some of her father’s loyalists, which experts say will boost her political capital and build alliances that could come in handy ahead of the next presidential election. “She’s projecting herself as a national personality. What’s happening today is her testing the water,” said Ramon Casiple, who heads the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

“Her image is being looked into, how people accept her. She has her own personality. She’s not being looked at as a carbon copy of her father.” Sara Duterte reluctantly took over from her father as mayor of Davao City and has become hugely popular there. She is also no stranger to presidential events and overseas trips, serving as first lady because of her father’s annulled marriage.

The 40-year old has spent the past three months on a campaign that has included touring on a 900 cc motorcycle and leading big rallies with billboards and banners carrying an image of herself twice the size of those of the candidates she is promoting.

Talk of succeeding President Duterte in 2022 has dampened concern among his critics that he might try to cling to power by changing the constitution to remove the single-term limit for presidents. Casiple said Sara Duterte as president could protect her father’s legacy and insulate him from political vendettas and what he has described as a “pattern of imprisonment” of former Philippine presidents. Some critics even suggest a family succession would protect Duterte, 74, from a possible International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment for crimes against humanity.

The ICC last year launched a preliminary examination into Duterte’s war on drugs, in which police have killed thousands of people. For her part, Sara has urged her supporters to stop referring to her as the next president, insisting it would put her at the top of a “hate list” of people eyeing the job. Her intention, she said, was to help her father deliver on his agenda, and talk of succession was pointless until 2021.

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