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Duterte allies crush opposition in Philippine midterm elections

Stronger Senate support gives president freer hand to amend constitution

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks at a rally in Manila on May 11. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

MANILA -- Senate candidates backed by President Rodrigo Duterte are on track to take over most of the 12 seats contested in the Philippines' midterm elections, resulting in a crushing defeat for the country's opposition.

The scale of Duterte's victory in Monday's polls is the biggest for a president since the restoration of democracy in 1987. His popularity has thrust political newcomers onto the national stage, and is a massive blow for opponents seeking to push back against what they say is an increasingly autocratic government.

The Senate race is widely regarded as the most crucial contest in the midterms, where 18,000 local government positions were also filled. Analysts saw it as a referendum on the first half of Duterte's six-year term, which has been marked by the president's bloody drug war, an infrastructure splurge, steady economic growth and a diplomatic pivot to China.

With more allies in the 24-member Senate, Duterte can now accelerate his controversial policies, including a plan to rewrite the constitution. Proposed laws generally require a simple majority to pass in the Senate, but radical reforms such as changing the national charter require three-quarters of votes.

With 94.26% of votes tallied as of 10:26 a.m. local time on Tuesday, nine of the 12 candidates with the most votes were allied with Duterte or with a coalition supportive of his administration, according to data from the Commission on Elections' transparency server. The commission is scheduled to begin the official count on Tuesday.

The three others have also lent the president partial support. Grace Poe and Nancy Binay, both incumbent senators, are currently part of the majority bloc in the Senate, while another leading candidate, Lito Lapid, has publicly backed Duterte's policies.

Duterte's popularity hit a record high leading into the elections, helping political greenhorns take slots in the upper half of the Senate race. The president actively backed such candidates in the campaign, delivering two-hour speeches that helped raise their profiles. And, in typical style, he hurled invectives and personal insults at opposition candidates.

People cast their ballots at a polling station in Manila on May 13. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Cynthia Villar, wife of billionaire businessman Manny Villar, topped the Senate polls with 24.4 million votes, followed by Poe with 23.3 million, and Bong Go, Duterte's personal aide since 1998, with 19.7 million. Ronald de la Rosa, Duterte's former police chief and drug war implementer, came fifth.

The victories of Go and de la Rosa -- both making their first run for elected office -- can be directly attributed to their ties with the popular president, said Aries Arugay, a political-science professor at the University of the Philippines.

"It is expected that they will be at the front lines of promoting and protecting the interests of Duterte," Arugay said.

Imee Marcos, the eldest daughter of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, took eighth place. Her father used military rule to tighten his grip on power, ruling the country for more than two decades until a popular revolution forced him into exile in 1986.

Duterte's strongman persona and public support of the Marcos family has helped rehabilitate the late dictator's image, whose legacy remains a polarizing issue for Filipinos.

As for the main opposition candidates, Bam Aquino came in 14th place and lost his seat, while Mar Roxas, a former senator, ranked 16th.

An increased majority of Duterte allies in the Senate could make it easier for the president to push ahead with controversial policies. Key pieces of his legislative agenda -- amending the constitution, reviving the death penalty and overhauling the corporate income tax and incentive laws -- have met resistance in the Senate, a traditionally independent institution.

"What matters most for stability is what Duterte does with the political momentum that he gains from the vote," Bob Herrera-Lim, managing director at executive consultancy Teneo, wrote in a note.

"Foreign direct investors may again have to watch the progress of tax reform legislation, because of his administration's plans to reform the incentive system and the possibility of constitutional change as the top two risks in the near term," Herrera-Lim said.

Over 61 million Filipinos were allowed to vote in the poll, which was marred by a technical problem that delayed release of partial results by hours. There were also widespread reports of malfunctioning voting machines and memory cards that store vote results.

The elections come at a time when the economy is growing at the slowest pace in four years, largely due to a budget impasse that delayed congressional approval of Duterte's spending plan for 2019.

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