Allies of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have dominated a mid-term Senate election according to unofficial results on Tuesday, indicating growing support for the maverick leader and broad public endorsement of his controversial rule.
Nine of 12 Senate seats available look set to go to pro-Duterte candidates and the rest to independents, unofficial results showed, with the opposition that campaigned strongly against his presidency failing to make the cut. Monday's ballot for more than 18,000 posts, among them hundreds of mayors, governors, and Congressmen, was billed as a referendum on the firebrand president, with special focus on his bid to consolidate power in the all-important upper house.
A Senate majority would be a boon for Duterte, lessening the chance of censures and house probes against his government and making it easier to co-opt independents and sideline opponents to push through bills vital to his ambitious reform agenda. "This president's popularity and transferability of his popularity is unprecedented, to say the least, despite all the controversies," said political analyst Edmund Tayao.
"You expect normally two or three candidates from the opposition to win but this is a wipe-out." Candidates leading the Senate race include the president's closest aide, the daughter of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the wife of the country's richest man, a jailed politician recently cleared of plunder, and a police general who led a war on drugs that killed thousands in its first few months.
They would join 12 Senate incumbents of which only four are from the opposition, including the biggest critic of Duterte's war on drugs, Leila de Lima, who has been in detention since 2017 on narcotics charges.
The mid-term results leave the political opposition in tatters and change the dynamic of a Senate that has traditionally been a vital check on state power and a bulwark against the kind of political dominance that Duterte is demonstrating. Duterte is expected to retain control in the lower house also. The opposition vowed not to give in.
"We acted not for the certainty of victory but the certainty of our beliefs and conviction," said incumbent Senator Francis Pangilinan. "Our fight for justice, for sovereignty and a more progressive future for our people continues." The mid-terms came at a time when Duterte, 74, is seemingly untouchable, with last year's spiralling inflation now under control and a recent poll showing his public approval rating at a staggering 81 per cent.
Duterte's down-to-earth appeal and his diehard social media support base have so far insulated him from domestic repercussions for his misogynistic remarks, jokes about rape, tirades against the Catholic church, an embrace of rival China, and a crackdown on drugs that killed thousands of users and small-timer peddlers in slum communities, many execution-style.
Experts say the administration's winning formula was focusing less on policy and more on Duterte's personality, including using daughter Sara Duterte as a potent surrogate, in a possible succession play for the 2022 presidential election. "That was a wise move on the part of father and daughter, they were willing to use their brand," said political strategist Malou Tiquia.
(With inputs from agencies.)