Philippine midterm polls marred by vote-buying

Filipinos waiting to vote at Culiat Elementary School in Manila yesterday. The midterm polls are expected to strengthen President Rodrigo Duterte's grip on power, opening the way for him to deliver on pledges to restore the death penalty and rewrite
Filipinos waiting to vote at Culiat Elementary School in Manila yesterday. The midterm polls are expected to strengthen President Rodrigo Duterte's grip on power, opening the way for him to deliver on pledges to restore the death penalty and rewrite the Constitution.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

62m Filipinos cast ballots amid reports of malfunctioning vote-counting machines

Nearly 62 million Filipinos voted yesterday in midterm elections seen as peaceful but marred somewhat by vote-buying and faulty counting machines.

Mr James Jimenez, the elections commission spokesman, said: "We're seeing a lot of precincts open, and a lot of voters were able to cast their votes successfully."

Half of the 24 seats in the Senate and all 297 seats in the House of Representatives are at stake. Some 43,000 candidates are also running for about 18,000 local posts. The vote count could take days.

There were no indications of significant violence, but there were widespread reports of vote-buying and breakdowns of hundreds of machines used to tally votes.

National police chief Oscar Albayalde told reporters there were "massive vote-buying incidents".

He said 302 campaign workers were arrested purportedly with cash. They were said to be offering voters 300 pesos to 3,000 pesos (S$8 to S$80) for their votes.

A high-profile candidate running for mayor of metropolitan Manila's largest city was arrested on Sunday after he tried to intervene when law enforcers began arresting his supporters at a supposed "vote-buying site". He was freed hours later on an "obstruction of justice" charge.

Voting early yesterday was also marred by reports of malfunctioning vote-counting machines.

Former vice-president Jejomar Binay was unable to vote at first because the machine failed to read his ballot. "This is a way of disenfranchising voters... This is another way of reducing votes," he said.

But he got to vote after the machine was replaced.

Mr Jimenez said 400 to 600 vote-counting machines had glitches but stressed that they represented just a fraction of the more than 80,000 machines deployed.

The polls have been billed as a referendum on Mr Rodrigo Duterte's presidency and a showdown between his allies, who aim to dominate the 24-seat Senate, and opposition candidates fighting for checks and balances under a leader they regard as a looming dictator.

 
 
 

Since taking office in 2016, Mr Duterte has presided over a brutal war on drugs that has left more than 5,000 people dead. He has pledged a "harsher" war, and is seeking to reinstate the death penalty as big-time drug gangs continue to flood the country with narcotics.

Mr Duterte has also upended foreign policy, steering the country away from its traditional ally, the United States, and moving closer to China in search of funds to bankroll his ambitious, but still stalled, infrastructure programme.

He has put forward a controversial plan to shift from a unitary to a federal form of government, in a bid to spread wealth in one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. He also wants to cut corporate tax rates to attract more investments.

All these plans are said to be on the line in the midterm polls.

By most accounts, the election results will strengthen Mr Duterte's hand and further marginalise a dwindling opposition.

Eight candidates from the Hugpong ng Pagbabago (Caucus for Change) coalition helmed by Mr Duterte's daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Carpio, are guaranteed to win Senate seats.

Political risk consultancy Teneo's managing director Bob Herrera-Lim said: "Although the opposition has tried to raise territorial issues, tax reform, it hasn't resonated as much with voters."

Security forces have been on red alert since last Friday, with more than 200,000 soldiers and policemen deployed to secure some 36,000 polling centres.

Colonel Noel Detoyato, the military's public affairs chief, said there were election-related incidents that led to at least 20 deaths, but these were "very isolated". In 2016, the tally reached nearly 200.

In war-torn Mindanao, where political clans, separatists and militants hold sway, "this year's poll is shaping up to be no different", said the World Bank-funded think-tank International Alert Philippines.

The group tallied 43 reports that "depicted a campaign period… that saw candidates and their supporters engage in mud-slinging, vote-buying, intimidation and threats, harassment, physical fights and violence with the use of firearms".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2019, with the headline 'Philippine midterm polls marred by vote-buying'. Print Edition | Subscribe