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Politics

Duterte allies gain momentum in Senate polls

Unprecedented sweep a looming possibility, survey suggests

A senate controlled by Duterte allies would speed up the government's agenda of reforming the country's tax systems and shifting to a federal form of government.   © Reuters

MANILA-- President Rodrigo Duterte's senatorial candidates could sweep the midterm elections next week, according to a new survey, giving the Philippines' firebrand leader a crucial political boost to pursue plans in overhauling the government and keep his controversial policies intact.

On May 13, more than 61 million Filipino voters will elect half of the Senate's 24 seats. Candidates who are expected to win are allied with Duterte's PDP-Laban Party and the Hugpong ng Pagbabago coalition of his daughter, Sara Duterte.

The midterm polls are widely seen by political observers as a referendum on Duterte and his policies, including the controversial war against drugs that has killed thousands of suspected dealers and users, a planned shift to a federal form of government in the Philippines, and moves to further embrace China -- Manila's maritime foe that has turned into a key funder of the country's ambitious infrastructure projects.

A survey by Pulse Asia Research shows only incumbent Senator Bam Aquino, a cousin of former President Benigno Aquino, as the lone opposition candidate that could win, but he stands in the precarious 10th to 14th spot. With 12 Senate seats up for grabs, Aquino is on the threshold of retaining his seat. Another opposition candidate, Mar Roxas, a former senator and presidential candidate, slipped to the 14th to 17th bracket.

If Duterte's allied candidates sweep the midterm polls, he will achieve an unprecedented political feat since democracy was restored in the country in 1986. Halfway through his six-year term, the president is enjoying his highest popularity rating since he was elected, as inflation has continued to ease this year and the country notched a coveted rating upgrade from Standard and Poor's.

A Senate controlled by Duterte allies would speed up the government's agenda of reforming the country's tax system and shifting to a federal form of government. At the local level, over 18,000 local government positions will be contested, including close to 300 seats in the House of Representatives, which historically support a popular president.

Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said controlling the Senate is crucial for Duterte's federalism agenda.

"Federalism is the next issue after the election," Casiple said. "The administration will go all-out on this because this is his top promise and it also emphasizes what his political base wants."

Pulse Asia's latest survey was conducted April 10-14, when Duterte's government publicly chided Beijing over the presence of Chinese fishermen at Philippine controlled islands in the South China Sea. The rare move was meant to dispel criticism that the president was too soft in reining in China's expansion in the disputed waters.

The maritime dispute has been a key domestic issue, and the opposition has attacked Duterte's China ties to build popular support.

Casiple said voters may still change their minds and the rankings could shift. "It may be indicative of trends, but by no means it forecasts already the results," he said.

The opposition remains optimistic it can pull off an upset on Election Day. Senator Francis Pangilinan, the campaign manager of the eight-person opposition team, said a last-minute groundswell and a snowball effect could help its candidates win next week.

"We will not stop convincing and wooing [voters] until the last day," Pangilinan said. "A surprise come-from-behind victory of our Otso Diretso [Straight Eight] is still a possibility."

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