MANILA — The Philippines on Monday voted in midterm elections that are widely expected to deliver a win for allies of President Rodrigo Duterte, weaken the independence of the Senate and allow him to advance his agenda midway into his term despite international condemnation.
Even so, the strongman leader defined the election. Speaking to reporters after voting in his hometown of Davao City on Monday afternoon, he characterized the vote as a referendum on his policies.
“If you agree with me, you can vote for my candidates,” Duterte said. “If I am repudiated by the loss of all candidates . . . then that would indicate that the majority of the people don’t like me. That’s that.”
Vincent Verdadero, a 42-year-old truck driver based in Denmark, returned to the Philippines to vote for Duterte’s allies. Like many overseas Filipinos, he describes himself as a “solid” supporter of the president.
“We want change, don’t we? We want to bring back how vibrant the Philippines was,” Verdadero said. Under the last administration, he said, “we almost became a narco country. The president runs the country well.”
Others wanted to send a signal that the Philippines is moving rapidly toward an authoritarian future and hoped to stem the tide by selecting liberal candidates critical of Duterte.
They included Angela Paraiso, 23, who said “the country’s whole future” is at stake. She said some candidates’ records of corruption are “blatantly obvious,” and she expressed concern about issues such as extrajudicial killings and Duterte’s pivot toward China.
“If the [administration’s allies] win, there’ll be no check and balance,” she said. “That’s a really scary thought.”
A resounding victory for Duterte’s allies, analysts say, will further tighten his grip on the Philippines.
“A big win for [Duterte’s] allies would mean support for the flagship policies of the president, especially the controversial ones,” said Cleve Arguelles, a doctoral fellow in politics and social change at Australian National University. “What is at stake in the 2019 midterm elections is whether Duterte’s presidency will be even more dangerous than it already is.”
The tough-talking president is best known for his bloody war on drugs. The government says that more than 5,000 drug dealers and users have been killed in police operations. Human rights groups say the toll is probably significantly higher — up to 20,000, including low-level drug users and even ordinary citizens, some killed vigilante-style.
The midterms also will determine the independence of the Senate, at a time when Duterte is gaining influence over institutions meant to check the presidency.
Although senators have increasingly been allying themselves with Duterte, the body has been able to block key legislation introduced by him, including measures to reinstate the death penalty, lower the age of criminal liability and create a federal form of government — proposals condemned by human rights groups and political watchdogs.
The Senate has been “the last bastion of resistance,” said Aries Arugay, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines.
Candidates endorsed by Duterte — who enjoys high approval ratings — have consistently topped polls. They include his former special assistant, Bong Go; former police chief and drug war enforcer Bato dela Rosa; and Imee Marcos, daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Though the opposition is politically credible, Arguelles said, it remains “electorally uncompetitive,” still widely perceived as elitist, compared with Duterte’s image as a brash everyman.
Monday’s vote was marred in some precincts by reports of faulty voting machines. The Philippine Commission on Elections estimated that about 400 to 600 out of 85,000 machines experienced issues. A mayoral candidate was arrested on suspicion of vote-buying, and volunteers in some areas were seen outside polling stations handing out voting guides advocating certain candidates.
Such antics have colored Philippine elections for decades, but electoral authorities have also been dealing with a new and growing problem: online disinformation and troll armies, which were harnessed to boost Duterte in the 2016 elections. Facebook is widely popular in the Philippines, and social media analytics show that Filipinos spend the most time online in the world — clocking in a daily average of more than 10 hours on the Internet.
Politicians across party lines have rushed to join the cyberwar, hiring online hands with fake accounts to boost their platforms, defend their allies and sometimes smear their rivals.
The unprecedented weaponization of social media for political campaigns caught the election commission off guard in the last presidential election. The body now requires candidates to disclose all their official online accounts. Thirty days after the election, Facebook and other platforms are expected to submit reports of paid advertisements.
“We had an experience that totally caught us flat-footed,” said James Jiménez, a spokesman for the commission. The new rules, he said, will not solve all problems — especially because he has a team of only 10 monitoring the use of social media advertising — but will “make a dent.”
Analysts doubt this will be enough.
“You can come up with rules and regulations,” Arugay said. “But if you don’t have infrastructure or political will to implement it, it has no value.”
Jonathan Ong, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has studied the troll industry, says plenty of campaign propaganda can still fly under the radar.
“We all know trolling doesn’t happen on the official accounts. It happens on the [alternative] account, the anonymous account,” he said.
Duterte also threw a curveball at the local press ahead of the elections, publicizing two “matrices” that claim independent fact-checkers are linked to the opposition, the Communist Party and his critics.
The president’s office has not provided proof for its claims, but the charts have fueled online hate at the people named.
Facebook’s fact-checking partners, Vera Files and Rappler, are among the accused.
“We continue with the same vigor despite attempted distraction” from Duterte’s office, said Vera Files President Ellen Tordesillas. The nonprofit is part of tsek.ph, a fact-checking initiative among local news organizations and universities.
Arugay believes that this toxic atmosphere online, with the proliferation of false accounts, has become the new normal.
“The mobilization of trolls we see now — it’s a Pandora’s box,” he said. “We can’t bring that back. It will stay.”
Mahtani reported from Hong Kong.