The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Philippine midterm elections deliver a resounding vote of confidence for Duterte

Election campaign fliers are scattered outside a polling precinct as voting for the country’s midterm elections draws to a close May 13 in Manila.
Election campaign fliers are scattered outside a polling precinct as voting for the country’s midterm elections draws to a close May 13 in Manila. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

MANILA — A dictator’s daughter and the commander of President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war were among the winners of the Philippines’ midterm elections, a resounding endorsement for the strongman leader’s policies.

Winners of Monday’s vote will allow Duterte to consolidate power and push through some of his most controversial policies — allowing children as young as 12 to be tried as adults and continuing a brutal war on drug peddlers and users — despite international condemnation. The president himself was not running, but he had made his picks clear. Twelve Senate seats, 200 seats in the lower house and thousands of other positions were up for grabs. 

Early unofficial results showed a landslide defeat for the opposition. Liberal candidates who ran on platforms of justice and inclusion lost to former police chief Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, who oversaw the drug war, and Imee Marcos, the daughter of deposed president Ferdinand Marcos. The two were among the senatorial candidates who received the most votes, and they will almost certainly be among 12 senators elected Monday. 

Imee Marcos will be the second from her family in the legislature, after her brother Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Another poll-topper is Bong Go, a former special assistant to the president who rose to viral fame as a meme after his selfies with world leaders. An independent investigative report found that Go spent more than 30 times his net worth on the campaign, and he has been accused of using government resources to his advantage.

The early results trickled out after a roughly seven-hour lag in tallying the votes by the Philippine Commission on Elections. While the elections were generally perceived to have proceeded without major issue, there were reports of vote-buying, faulty counting machines and at least 20 cases of election-related violence.

Philippines midterm elections expected to boost Duterte and his agenda

Earlier polls had indicated that Duterte’s allies would dominate the elections. The populist leader enjoys a roughly 80 percent approval rating, in sharp contrast to the international shock surrounding his rhetoric and policies, ranging from the drug war to his pivot toward China and away from the Philippines’ long-term ally, the United States. 

Human rights watchdogs estimate that the war on drugs has left at least 25,000 people dead, prompting the International Criminal Court to launch a preliminary inquiry into the killings.

The Senate was seen as the last institutional resistance to looming authoritarian rule. Administration allies dominate the House of Representatives, and a chief justice critical of Duterte was ousted last year.

The victory could mean the passage of key policies under Duterte that he was unable to realize during his first three years in office. Apart from lowering the minimum age of criminal liability to 12, these could include the reinstatement of the death penalty and a shift to federalism that would further empower the political dynasties in the countryside.

“What Duterte has done here is consolidate the political elite around him,” said Tony La Viña, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government. “I would say that 99 percent of politicians in this country are behind Duterte.”

Imee Marcos, whose father’s reign was defined by brutality, corruption and excesses until his ouster in 1986, ran under the party of Sara Duterte, the daughter of the president and the mayor of Davao. The Marcos family is believed to have stolen $5 billion to $10 billion from the state during its two-decade rule.

A U.S. court previously found Imee Marcos liable for the death of a college student who was tortured after he questioned her qualifications for a government position in 1977. She recently made headlines again after Princeton University officials denied her claim of having graduated there.

Another one of Duterte’s top picks who triumphed in the elections was Francis Tolentino, his former political adviser.

The opposition was left out of the top 12 entirely. This leaves five senators from the Liberal Party in the upper house. One of them, Leila de Lima, has been detained on what critics say are trumped-up drug charges.

“The discourse on what we fought for during the campaign does not end with elections,” Liberal Party President Francis Pangilinan said Tuesday. “[These] include China’s encroachment on our territory and economy, extrajudicial killings . . . and the loss of just salaries and work for our countrymen, as well as many other gut issues.”

But La Viña said that “it’s not as catastrophic as it seems,” as midterms are typically won by the administration. He added that the opposition lost only two Senate seats — previously held by Bam Aquino and Antonio Trillanes, another vocal critic of Duterte. Trillanes was not seeking reelection. 

Philippines leaves International Criminal Court as Duterte probe is underway

Except for former Senate president Koko Pimentel, who is in Duterte’s party, most of the rest of the senators are independents. But a number had the president’s endorsement.

Other winners include former senator Pia Cayetano, the sister of Duterte’s 2016 vice presidential running mate, and Bong Revilla, a former actor. Revilla, who mounted his campaign amid corruption charges, has been ordered to return $2.37 million to the national treasury.

Although some of the new senators are expected to kowtow to Duterte’s policies, analysts say that a number of them will still vote in their personal interest.

“Duterte doesn’t automatically have the votes for everything he wants,” La Viña said.

But trouble may arise, he said, if the legislature is mobilized to unseat opposition figures such as de Lima or Vice President Leni Robredo, which would be easier to accomplish with Duterte’s majority.

The massive hit for the president’s critics reflects what analysts say is a public perception of the opposition as elitist. The Liberal Party fielded eight candidates, branded as the “Otso Diretso” or “Straight Eight.”

But La Viña said the opposition politicians could have benefited from a broader alliance with independents and the left, rather than promoting their own party principles. 

“The strategy is actually not to fight Duterte, but to fight for positive things,” La Viña said. “You really cannot fight Duterte.”

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, one of Time magazine’s 2018 people of the year, arrested again

‘Ready the places where you’ll be buried’: Philippine priests say they are under threat

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news