Candidates who support President Rodrigo Duterte dominated legislative elections in the Philippines, officials said Tuesday, bolstering the power of the architect of a deadly anti-drug campaign and a new friendship with China.
With nearly 99% of votes counted, a coalition of parties that back Duterte had won nine of 12 open seats in the Senate, giving the president control of 18 of its 24 total seats
Pro-Duterte candidates were also expected to keep their 245-seat majority in the 297-seat House of Representatives.
Legislative candidates endorsed by Duterte had been expected to win after his public approval rating surged early this year.
“The president’s endorsement rubs off, especially for Duterte’s supporters and especially because he’s enjoying an all-time-high trust rating,” said Eduardo Araral, a Philippine native and associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
“The economy is humming along. Duterte is ‘what you see is what you get.’ Filipinos can relate to the simplicity.”
Duterte, the 74-year-old former mayor of the country’s second largest city, Davao, has alarmed rights groups and Western governments that accuse him of enabling police to carry out extrajudicial killings in the guise of a drug war. Duterte has vowed to stick with the campaign, but after the killings of several teenagers in 2017 he ordered police to be more disciplined during raids.
That campaign had killed more than 12,000 drug suspects as of January 2018, Human Rights Watch estimates.
But many Filipinos support the tough approach. Among the candidates expected to win Senate seats was former Philippine National Police Chief Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, who led the police force during the most intensive part of the anti-drug effort, from July 2016 to April 2018.
Also projected to win a seat was Imee Marcos, the daughter of the late Ferdinand E. Marcos, the former president known for employing martial law and cracking down on dissent.
Military officials and academics also question Duterte’s pursuit of closer relations with Beijing by putting aside a decades-old sovereignty dispute over parts of the South China Sea. His predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, clashed with China over the territorial issue, landing the two nations in a world arbitration court from 2013 to 2016. The court ruled in favor of the Philippines, but China considers the decision invalid.
The stronger Chinese armed forces still administer islets that Manila calls its own, including the fisheries-rich Scarborough Shoal.
Duterte’s approval rating had dipped to 70% in September, when inflation rose to 6.7%. But after inflation eased and economic growth picked up this year, Duterte received a 79% approval rating in the first quarter of 2019 in a survey by the Manila research institute Social Weather Stations.
Amid signs of public frustration with his embrace of China, Duterte took a slightly tougher line against Beijing during the election campaign, even threatening to send Philippine pilots on suicide missions if China kept sending ships near a Philippine-controlled islet in the South China Sea.
The results will make it easier for Duterte to pass laws and secure funds through the end of his six-year term in 2022, analysts said.
Limited by Philippine law to one term, Duterte will use the midterm election victories to push through legislative votes for new infrastructure work and tougher anti-crime measures such as restoring the death penalty, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, a Manila advocacy group.
“Whatever he’s doing now, it will be with more confidence,” Casiple said.
He could also continue building ties with Beijing, Casiple said. China and the Philippines are planning to explore together for oil or gas in the South China Sea, the center of the countries’ historical dispute over sovereignty.
Months after Duterte took office, Chinese officials pledged $24 billion in aid and investment for the Philippines. The two countries signed deals in April to use $12.2 billion in funds from Chinese companies for energy, infrastructure and telecommunications.
The president is also in the middle of a $169-billion program to replace crumbling infrastructure with expressway overpasses and railway lines.
Voters in metro Manila said they supported pro-Duterte Senate candidates because the president’s policies had helped raise quality of life. Of the 12 seats being contested, three were going to independent candidates; an anti-Duterte opposition bloc was being shut out, according to the 99% of votes counted through Tuesday morning.
“He’s for the cleanliness of the Philippines, like regarding the drugs, the cleanliness of landscaping, priority of the poor people and education,” said 45-year-old voter May Isabela De La Pena, a neighborhood councilor in Pasay City.
Her city, which adjoins Manila, grapples with panhandlers, open sewage and deep potholes. But its economy is growing, thanks to business from the country’s largest shopping mall and recent construction of new hotels with rooms serving some of metro Manila’s mega-casinos.
Another voter, Rolano Magabanua, a 49-year-old fabric vendor, said food and transportation prices were still too high.
“For my side, it’s OK. I can buy something, but the other people, they cannot because of the economy of the Philippines,” he said.
He joined thousands of people jamming a Pasay City elementary school to vote and dip a finger in purple ink as proof of having cast a ballot. Police visited the school to stop campaign organizers from passing out material during the 12-hour voting period on Monday, although hundreds of business card-sized candidate leaflets still littered a walkway outside the main gate.
Nationwide, local media reported violence at two polling stations Monday as well as vote-buying and malfunctioning ballot-counting machines.
About 43,000 candidates ran for 18,000 mostly local posts across the country. The new Senate is due to take office June 30.
Jennings is a special correspondent.