MANILA – Polls opened Monday for the midterm election seen as a referendum on the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, who remains widely popular halfway into his 6-year term.
Nearly 320 seats in the 2-chamber legislature and more than 17,000 local government positions will be contested as 61.8 million voters cast their ballots.
The vote would determine if Duterte can retain his strong majority in the House of Representatives and keep the opposition out of the Senate.
The upper chamber of Congress has stood in the way of the President’s push for a federal system of government, while the opposition led legislative inquiries into his family and the narcotics crackdown that has killed thousands.
Duterte's tough-on-crime platform -- which also includes lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12 -- was key to his landslide election victory in 2016.
Opposition candidates before the polling day raised alleged rights abuses under the war on drugs, the government’s supposed subservience to China, and previous plunder charges against some administration bets.
The opposition also warned that rewriting the constitution could lead to the single-term limit for the presidency being lifted, allowing Duterte to seek re-election despite his repeated statements that he would stand down at the end of his mandate.
It would also allow him to expand his contentious anti-drug crackdown by bringing back the death penalty, a pledge which the UN Human Rights Council said gave it "deep alarm".
The Philippines outlawed capital punishment in 1987, reinstated it six years later and then abolished again in 2006.
Administration candidates, however, dominated voter surveys. Public satisfaction with Duterte last month also bounced back to a personal high satisfaction rating of +66 that he first got in June 2017.
The 74-year-old Duterte hit the campaign trail to get his supporters in the Senate, giving 2-hour speeches at late-night rallies and routinely insulting their opponents -- calling one a "faggot" and accusing another of lawyering for communist guerrillas.
The results for municipal and city mayors and councils are expected within hours after the polls close at 6:00 pm Monday, with winners for the Senate and congressional seats scheduled to be declared from Friday.
Even if the presidential term limit is not lifted, the Duterte family looks well-placed to continue after him.
The president's daughter Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio -- tipped by many as the president's potential successor in the 2022 presidential vote -- is running to keep her post as mayor in its southern bailiwick of Davao city.
Her younger brother Sebastian is seeking, unopposed, the city's vice-mayoral seat, while the eldest presidential son Paolo is standing for a seat in the House of Representatives.
BUZZ IN THE STREETS
Malacañang on Friday urged Filipinos to exercise their right to suffrage, which Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo dubbed as “the strongest form of action an individual can perform in a democratic society.
Before dawn on Monday, lines quickly formed at polling stations.
Police meanwhile arrested in recent days dozens for alleged vote-buying, including Quezon City mayoral candidate Vincent Crisologo on the eve of the election.
Electoral contests in the Philippines have always been bloody, with dozens, including candidates and their supporters, getting killed in the fierce competition for posts that are a source of wealth in a nation with deep poverty.
Police are on full alert to safeguard Monday's balloting as the bloody trend continued this year, with 14 dead and 14 wounded in "election-related violent incidents" since January, according to an official count.
With a report from Cecil Morella, Agence France-Presse