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Weak opposition boosts Duterte camp's chances of clinching midterms

Inflation becomes key campaign issue as candidates prepare to woo voters

MANILA -- A weak opposition bloc in the Philippines has become more apparent in the run-up to midterm elections in May, boosting the chances of Rodrigo Duterte's allies to clinch victory and adding impetus to the president's reform agenda.

Candidate filings for senators, congressional representatives and city officials ended on Wednesday, paving the way for the official start of campaigns early next year.

The Liberal Party-led opposition coalition fielded only one senatorial candidate who showed well in a survey conducted in September by local pollster Social Weather Stations -- former presidential aspirant Mar Roxas.

Twelve senate seats, half of the legislative chamber's total composition, will be up for grabs.

The opposition coalition fielded only eight senatorial candidates instead of a complete lineup of 12, suggesting it struggled to attract other contenders to the camp.

The SWS survey shows that the majority of the 12 most popular candidates, including incumbent senators who are seeking re-election, belong to or are allied with the Duterte administration-led coalition.

Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said the survey results will become more indicative of the actual popular sentiment by April. "[But] assuming these surveys are [definitive], then it really means the opposition has weakened to the point that they cannot even survive the senatorial contest," Casiple said.

The Philippines has a multiparty system, and switching party or alliances is common. Legislators, especially those in congress, align themselves with the ruling party. Senators, some of whom are eyeing the presidency, are seen as more independent.

Still, candidates prefer to run under the administration, which can provide campaign resources. "It's easier to win if you are aligned with the president, especially if the president is popular," Casiple said.

"There are supportive senators that are not with the PDP Laban [ruling party], but they support [the administration], they're with the majority," elections commissioner Rowena Guanzon said.

Keeping a grip on the senate could bolster Duterte's chances of pushing through major reforms, such as amending the corporate income tax code. But rewriting the constitution, a key Duterte initiative, would likely remain an uphill battle, Casiple said, arguing more senators are critical of the plan.

Duterte has remained popular despite declining public satisfaction ratings amid rising consumer prices. Some are banking on his endorsement.

In Philippine elections, personality outweighs policy stances.

Bong Go, a longtime personal assistant to Duterte, and former presidential spokesperson Harry Roque are also hoping to secure seats in the senate. Former national police chief Rolando dela Rosa, in charge of implementing Duterte's drug war, which has left thousands of suspects dead, is among the strongest senatorial contenders, according to SWS.

Inflation is shaping up to be a major issue heading into the campaign season amid public fury over increasing prices. "The time to suspend the excise tax increase is now or sooner, not in January 2019," said Senator Grace Poe, who is seeking re-election. Poe was referring to an additional levy on oil that has helped fuel inflation.

Human rights under the Duterte administration could also become an issue.

Imee Marcos, daughter of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, will seek a senate seat. Duterte has backed the Marcos family, which remains an influential political force in the northern Philippines.

Other senatorial candidates include lawyers Jose Manuel Diokno and Erin Tanada, sons of former senators who fought the Marcos dictatorship. The two have fared poorly in early surveys.

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