Duterte Seeks to Consolidate Power as Philippines Holds Senate Elections





Jason Gutierrez

c.2019 New York Times News Service


MANILA, Philippines — Millions of Filipinos began voting Monday to choose half of the nation’s Senate in what is widely seen as a proxy battle between President Rodrigo Duterte and politicians opposed to his deadly war on drugs.

Just hours after polls opened at 6 a.m., the police reported scattered incidents of violence and voter intimidation. On Sunday night, the eve of voting, two explosions hit town halls in the southern province of Maguindanao, where warlords have traditionally vied for control. There were no reported casualties.

Nearly 300,000 police officers and members of the armed forces have been deployed nationwide to prevent violence, with the national police reporting that at least 20 people had been killed and 24 injured in election-related attacks in the weeks running up to the voting.

Duterte was expected to vote in his hometown, Davao City, on Monday afternoon. He spent the past few days campaigning for Senate candidates supportive of his agenda, vowing to push forward with an anti-drug crackdown that has left thousands dead.

At one of his last campaign stops Friday, he took aim at what he characterized as a political elite that wants him out because he is an outsider, and he rebuffed criticism of his anti-drug crackdown.

“I’m not the one who gives orders,” he said in countering accusations that he is the force behind the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects. “I would just tell you to arrest them and if they don’t surrender, kill them. But arrest them all and destroy the organization of drugs.”

Analysts say Duterte is not pulling any punches for Monday’s elections and wants to fill the 12 seats up for grabs in the 24-member Senate with allies who will not hinder his legislative agenda. Chief among his goals is revising the Philippine Constitution to effectively lift term limits. He is also backing legislation to lower the age of criminal liability of child offenders as well as bring back the death penalty for some serious crimes.

The Senate is seen as one of the last bulwarks against his increasingly authoritarian rule, but with the opposition struggling, his foes fear that Monday’s voting will help him consolidate his power and push through his agenda.

Ramon Casiple, head of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said a victory by Duterte’s allies Monday “would spell a continuity of his political agenda and strengthening of his hold on power.”

He said the candidacies of key Duterte allies, including his one-time personal aide, Bong Go, and Ronald dela Rosa, the country’s former police chief, could be propelled by Duterte’s popularity, noting that various surveys have said that a majority of the country’s population still backed the president and turned a blind eye on the excesses of his drugs crackdown.

“That Duterte continues to enjoy an unprecedented 80% popularity after three years speaks of his understanding of the reality on the ground, specifically of the yearning of the vast sections of the poor,” Casiple said.

Monday elections are taking place at the midpoint of Duterte’s six-year term. And unlike the House of Representatives, which has supported Duterte’s war on drugs and other policies, the Senate has been seen as more independent. Six members of the opposition are in the minority bloc, while the rest are allied with the president.

The opposition has already been weakened, with one member, Sen. Leila de Lima, in jail for what she says are trumped-up charges, and another critic, Antonio Trillanes, not seeking re-election.

Meanwhile, the nation’s police chief, Oscar Albayalde, cited widespread reports of cheating.

“We are seeing a massive increase in vote buying,” he said, adding that since voting began Monday, more than 230 people had been arrested.