Philippine President Duterte's candidates seen sweeping midterm polls

 Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte remains popular despite his brutal drug war, attacks on human rights advocates, church leaders and journalists, dismal anti-corruption campaign and pro-China rhetoric.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte remains popular despite his brutal drug war, attacks on human rights advocates, church leaders and journalists, dismal anti-corruption campaign and pro-China rhetoric.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - Judging by the latest opinion polls, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his candidates are likely to dominate next week's midterm elections, giving him a smooth second act in what has been a polarising presidency.

Next Monday (May 13), over 60 million Filipinos will elect 12 senators, 297 district representatives, and some 18,000 provincial, city and town officials.

Six candidates who are certain to win seats in the Senate belong to a coalition of political parties helmed by Mr Duterte's daughter Sara Carpio, the feisty mayor of Davao city. Three more have statistically high chances of winning.

Only one candidate from the opposition party is likely to win, and he is bringing up the rear. The rest of the shoo-ins are running as independents, but they espouse agendas that generally toe Mr Duterte's line.

The predicted outcome would be a "major historical aberration", said Mr Richard Heydarian, a political analyst who wrote the book The Rise Of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy.

Past midterm elections had seen half of the Senate seats going to the ruling party, while the opposition and independents shared the rest. This time, Mr Duterte is guaranteed a landslide.

"The impeccable campaign performance of his alter egos… is a perfect reflection of the President's endorsement power," said Mr Heydarian.

 
 
 

Indeed, Mr Duterte remains popular despite his brutal drug war, attacks on human rights advocates, church leaders and journalists, dismal anti-corruption campaign and pro-China rhetoric. His administration enjoys record-high approval ratings. Four in five Filipinos are "satisfied" with how things are moving.

Next week's polls will ensure that the Philippines remains on an even keel.

Among those who will soon become senators are Mr Christopher Go and Mr Ronald dela Rosa. Both men have been with Mr Duterte for decades, going back to when he was Davao mayor.

Mr Go, a long-time special assistant of the President, has never been elected into office. He is best known as the man who always stood behind Mr Duterte wherever he went, carried his boss' bag, and answered his calls.

He was also the "selfie king" who always managed to snap photos of himself with the world leaders and celebrities whom Mr Duterte met.

Mr De la Rosa, as head of the police force from 2016 to 2018, was the chief enforcer of Mr Duterte's war on the narcotics trade.

It is not known how these two men will fare as lawmakers. But it is certain that among Mr Duterte's most loyal enforcers, they will be his eyes, ears and voice in the Senate, not that they will be swimming against the tide.

Nearly all of the new faces that will join the Senate owe a huge political debt to Mr Duterte. The same is true for the 297-seat House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Congress.

This means that Mr Duterte will be able to pursue his agenda unfettered. He can enjoy full support in Congress for an even "harsher" crackdown on the narcotics trade. His pivot to China will remain unchallenged.

But a bigger victory for him is the leverage he gains to push for a shift from a presidential to a federal form of government, a pillar of his political agenda.

 
 

Mr Duterte is "looking at relatively calm political waters… It's a good outlook for him", said Mr Bob Herrera-Lim, managing director at political risk consultancy firm Teneo.

It doesn't hurt that the economy has been faring very well.

The Philippines just chalked up its highest credit rating in history. Inflation has slid back to a 16-month low, and fewer Filipinos are jobless.

Pundits believe the opposition's failure to mount an effective challenge to Mr Duterte's candidates reflects lingering frustrations over the failures of past governments.

For all the accusations of incompetence, corruption and autocratic impulses against Mr Duterte, the opposition is still seen as representing a cabal that is even more corrupt and unreliable.

"Duterte's authoritarian brand of populism is still in tune with the political zeitgeist," said Mr Heydarian.