MANILA -- Candidates backed by President Rodrigo Duterte were in an upbeat mood on Tuesday as they kicked off a three-month campaign for the Philippines' midterm elections.
Members of political dynasties and close allies of the president are among the candidates backed by Duterte in the race for half of the country's 24 Senate seats. Nine of 15 candidates seen as able to win seats in the May 13 poll are supported by the president, according to research company Pulse Asia.
They include: Imee Marcos, the daughter of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos; Bato dela Rosa, Duterte's former police chief and lead implementer of the drug war; and Bong Go, the president's longtime assistant.
The polls are a referendum for the firebrand president who has waged a deadly campaign against drug offenders, implemented populist measures such as free college education and irrigation, and built friendlier relations with China.
Duterte's candidates launched their campaign in Pampanga, a vote-rich province in northern Philippines and stronghold of Gloria Arroyo, a former president who is now house speaker. Sara Duterte, the president's daughter, organized the rally. The usual staple of gimmicks were on display, with Dela Rosa belting out a pop ballad and Go parading a mascot who danced to his campaign jingle.
Duterte's spokesman said the president may come up with his own set of candidates deeper into the campaign.
In the Philippines, political parties are often organized around personalities, rather than ideologies, and are used as vehicles for politicians eyeing national posts.
"The discernible pattern is that candidates topping the polls come from established political brands (or dynasties) whose position in relation to the regime is often ambiguous," said Nicole Curato, a sociologist who has edited a book on Duterte.
The mood in the opposition camp was more subdued as they held a news conference and a door-to-door campaign in Caloocan, a city in Metro Manila badly hit by Duterte's drug war.
The opposition is scheduled to hold a bigger campaign rally on Wednesday in Naga City, the hometown of Vice-President Leni Robredo.
Mar Roxas, a former senator who lost to Duterte in 2016, is leading the opposition slate -- a loose coalition of eight members with varying backgrounds. They include the children of prominent senators who vocally opposed the martial law regime of Marcos in the 1970s, and a Muslim civil leader who quit Duterte's government when he declared military rule in Mindanao.
The opposition aims to focus the campaign narrative on inflation, which reached a nine-year high last year, good governance and a more assertive position against China in the disputed South China Sea.
Opposition candidate Florin Hilbay said they want to counter the wave of populism that Duterte has allowed in the last three years. "It's a campaign of contrasts," Hilbay said.
In the Senate race, voters nationwide can select up to 12 candidates, with the dozen that gain the highest number of votes being elected to office.
Elections will also be held on May 13 for more than 300 members of the House of Representatives and nearly 18,000 local positions. Local campaigns start in 45 days.