Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

Philippines elections set to tighten Rodrigo Duterte's grip on power

Senate candidates backed by president tipped to win in midterm elections

Supporters of opposition senatorial candidates march in Manila on May 10, 2019. AFP
Supporters of opposition senatorial candidates march in Manila on May 10, 2019. AFP

As voters in the Philippines prepare to head to the polls in midterm elections on Monday, populist President Rodrigo Duterte looks set to further consolidate power amid concerns of democratic erosion.

Ahead of the congressional, provincial and local elections, 150 priests, bishops and lay people from the Aglipayan Church cautioned voters on what they see as the dangerous consolidation of power in the Senate.

"The president now seeks to impose complete control over the Senate through creative manoeuvrings, and people of faith must not stand down,” the group calling themselves the Church People for an Independent Senate said.

“We must take up this crusade against his immoral attempts to monopolise political clout," they said in a statement on May 1 that also endorsed 10 candidates. "We must not allow power to be concentrated in the hands of only one person. We must not stand by as democracy is murdered.”

The Aglipayan Church is a breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church with about 8 million followers, in a country with more than 60 million registered voters.

Civilian watchdog, Kontra Daya - Metro Manila, has called on voters to be vigilant against any state-backed efforts to undermine a truly democratic ballot.

Opinion polls suggest a favourable outcome for senate candidates backed by 73-year-old president, who is expected to retain control in the lower house.

Mr Duterte's has voiced support for constitutional change, and a shift towards a federal system are front and centre of his policy platform.

With the regional power balance shifting, many Filipinos are concerned that Mr Duterte has allied himself too closely with an ascendant China which has become increasingly belligerent in its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Two-and-a-half years into Mr Duterte's term, the Philippines – comparatively a democratic stronghold in South-East Asia – has seen a crackdown on political opposition and the media, in particular the barrage of legal attacks against Maria Ressa, the founder of the independent news network Rappler.

Mr Duterte's drug war, known locally as "Oplan Tokhang", has drawn international condemnation. Rights watchdog Amnesty International says more than 12,000 people have been killed since it began. In a society riven by stark inequality, the urban poor have borne the brunt of extrajudicial killings, which have become so commonplace that the acronym "EJK" has entered common parlance.

Mr Duterte has said he intends to continue waging the bloody campaign until the end of his term in 2022. He vowed last year that it would remain “as relentless and chilling as on the day it began”.

Amnesty's South-East Asia researcher Rachel Chhoa-Howard said the drug-related killings, which continue to be reported on a near-daily basis, “appear to be systematic, planned and organised by the authorities”, and “meet the threshold of crimes against humanity and require immediate action by the international community”.

“There is cause for further alarm following the increase in killings of human-rights defenders and peaceful activists which will only worsen the culture of impunity that has come to pervade the country,” she said.

She called for the international community to "send a clear message to President Duterte’s administration".

The Philippines withdrew from the International Criminal Court in March, annulling its ratification of the Rome Statute. The court had been conducting a preliminary inquiry into the deaths during the drug war.

Jonathan Miller, author of Duterte Harry: Fire and Fury in the Philippines, says Mr Duterte’s ambitions have had a sinister and authoritarian bent.

The president has “undermined the very foundation stones of Philippine democracy and rule of law, he told The National.

“Now the man who claimed to have been an anti-elitist, anti-oligarch candidate from Mindanao is trying to ensure his Davao mafia calls the shots even when he’s gone.”

Mr Miller added that he was amazed that many Filipinos had been “duped by his rough-edged gangster charm, and seemingly fail to see the long-term damage he’s inflicting on their country”.

Updated: May 11, 2019 11:19 PM

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