Amidst vote-buying and violence, here’s what’s really at stake in today’s midterm elections in the Philippines

First time teenage voters may decide if the Philippines' senate remains independent of the country's president.

Facebook screengrab/ Philippine senatorial bet Samira Gutoc

Manila — Half of the seats in the Phillipines’ Senate are at the crux of today’s general election as over 61 million registered voters cast their votes for more than 18,000 positions.

Filipinos will be electing candidates to the House of Representatives, as well as governors and vice governors, members of provincial boards, city and municipal mayors and vice mayors as well as councillors.

Violence and vote-buying have long been a part of elections in the Philippines since many consider vying for elected posts as a means of personal enrichment in a country beset with a high poverty rate.

Since January, over 14 injured and 14 casualties have been reported in “election-related violent incidents,” putting the national police force on full alert for Monday’s polls, which began at 6:00 am and will end twelve hours later.

News of vote-buying circulated last week, well before the polls opened. In the country’s capital of Metro Manila, police chief Major General Guillermo Eleazar reported that almost 100 people had been arrested due to vote-selling and buying in five different cities leading up to the actual election day. Individuals convicted of vote-buying and selling could end up in jail for one to six years.

According to Commission on Elections commissoner Rowena Guanzon, “I just don’t know why there have been so many reports of vote buying now compared to previous polls; a lot of the perpetrators are getting caught now.”

Although the results of voting for local positions are only expected to be known hours after polling closes on Monday, most eyes are already fixed on the race for senatorial seats. The outcome of this race could tip the balance even more solidly in favour of the Philippines’ strong-armed leader President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.

The senate has historically been more independent than the House of Representatives which is now filled with Duterte’s allies. However, winning a majority in the senate may enable Duterte to change the country’s constitution and gain legislative support for his proposal in bringing back the death penalty which had been abolished in 2006. It could also possibly mean that Duterte could seek re-election in 2022, should the single-term limit for the presidency be amended.

Media site Rappler quotes Antonio La Viña, the former Dean of the Ateneo University School of Government as saying, “This could be a watershed moment in Philippine politics and governance, the final step of consolidation by the Duterte family of its dominance over the political elite.”

So far, among the administration’s senatorial bets, eight are ranking high in election surveys, including Imee Marcos, daughter of deposed former President Ferdinand Marcos, and Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, who had been the national police chief, and a chief proponent of the President’s bloody “war on drugs.”

Should President Duterte succeed in filling the senate with allies, analysts fear a silencing of opposing positions to the controversial drug war, his policies towards China, and heightened attacks on the Philippine press, Rappler reports.

As political science Professor Dennis Coronacion told the Philippine Star,

“In the event that President Duterte’s allies dominate the Senate, it’s very likely that the institution will lose its touted independence. The worst case scenario is when the Senate becomes a rubber stamp for the executive.”

Veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona put it simply, “This is at stake. The INDEPENDENCE of the Senate.”

However, a surprise win for opposition senatorial bets may be pulled off by the country’s youth. Mock polls in universities and colleges have consistently shown that young Filipinos heavily favour opposition and independent candidates.

With 2.3 million first-time teenage voters, the Commission on Elections has said that the country’s youth can play a big part in determining the results of Monday’s elections, having had a similar impact in 2016./TISG

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