Duterte's allies seek to delay village polls as part of drug war

MANILA • Allies of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have prepared legislation to postpone elections to the over 40,000 village councils in the country and let him choose replacements in what they say is part of the war on drugs.

If passed by Congress, the move would make Mr Duterte the most powerful leader in the Philippines since the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Mr Marcos was widely accused of exploiting village council leaders to legitimise his rule.

Mr Duterte has declared that 40 per cent of the Philippines' village chiefs, known as barangay captains, are "into drugs" and obstructing the anti-narcotics crackdown launched by his administration.

Over 8,000 people, mostly drug users and small pushers, have been killed since Mr Duterte took office at the end of June last year, about a third by the police and many of the rest by mysterious gunmen.

The proposal to delay the barangay polls due in October has been filed by Congressman Robert Barbers with the support of Duterte loyalist and House of Representatives Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. They say it aims to stop local drugs barons from winning posts.

The Bill, slated for discussion when Congress reconvenes on May 2, seeks to postpone for a second successive year the ballot for 336,000 chairmen and councillors in the nation's 42,000 barangays. But instead of extending the tenure of incumbents, Mr Duterte's allies want to declare all posts vacant until 2020, and let the President appoint caretakers.

If successful, it would effectively expand Mr Duterte's control of the executive and legislative branches to the local government apparatus.

Mr Duterte's spokesman, Mr Ernesto Abella, said the President wanted to keep drugs out of politics, but would let lawmakers decide on the elections. "He is aware of the process, respects the law, and defers to the independence of Congress," Mr Abella said.

Mr Barbers, who chairs the house committee on dangerous drugs, said he had not contacted Mr Duterte about his proposal and took it upon himself to intervene. He said the move was neither authoritarian nor undemocratic because "extraordinary times need extraordinary measures".

"We are afraid that 40 per cent of our barangays are controlled, affected or infected by drugs and that will increase," Mr Barbers said. "Especially if we give access to the drug lords to come into play, maybe run for public office. "

The barangay is the smallest political unit in the nation and its leaders have considerable influence. Via appointments, Mr Duterte could, potentially, build a grassroots power base, adding to the majority support he holds in the Lower House and Senate, and his loyal following on social media.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2017, with the headline 'Duterte's allies seek to delay village polls as part of drug war'. Print Edition | Subscribe