'Catholic on leave' has support of powerful Christian group

Philippine presidential favourite Rodrigo Duterte.
Philippine presidential favourite Rodrigo Duterte. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA • A powerful religious group known for delivering at least one million votes has thrown its weight behind Mr Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking mayor who is the front runner in the Philippine presidential race.

The two-million-strong Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), a home-grown Christian group, has held sway over elections and governance in the Philippines for decades.

It has used its bloc-voting power to influence elections, openly endorsing or rejecting candidates for president and senator and instructing its members to vote as a bloc.

President Benigno Aquino and his two predecessors - Mrs Gloria Arroyo and Mr Joseph Estrada - were backed by the INC.

Nearly all of the group's candidates for senator have been winning since 1998.

There are some 54 million registered voters in the Philippines.

The INC, in turn, has lobbied for key government posts for its members, including two justice ministers, a police chief, a high court judge, and two heads of the Philippine equivalent of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The INC is supporting Mr Duterte despite his admission of being a womaniser and having had a hand in vigilante-style killings.

He considers himself a "Catholic on leave".

He has said that if he had to obey all Ten Commandments, he would not be able to perform his duties as mayor.

Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church has looked disapprovingly at the prospect of a Duterte presidency. The church still holds sway over Philippine politics, but its influence - with losses in the reproductive health debate and declining church attendance - has been waning, analysts say.

The church today does not directly endorse candidates, but issues guidelines for its flock in choosing candidates.

It has remained firm in opposing divorce and abortion and still frowns upon homosexuality.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines recently called on Catholics, who form about 80 per cent of the 108 million population, to "cast their votes as an act not only of citizenship, but also as a declaration of faith".

Mr Duterte's reply: "I will not die if Catholics do not vote for me."

Raul Dancel

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline ''Catholic on leave' has support of powerful Christian group'. Print Edition | Subscribe