MANILA, Philippines – First-time voter Mika Fabella lined up for two hours in the scorching Manila heat to cast her ballot. But she didn’t mind. Her precinct in Makati City was crowded late in the morning, but it made her happy.
“It was good, because it was nice to see lots of voters,” she said.
She was extra vigilant about who would get the privilege of her vote. She asked herself one critical question when she reviewed the names on her ballot: “Am I willing to bet my life on this person?”
“Because that’s exactly what we’re doing,” she told VICE. “There were a couple that I took off my list at that point because I found that I wasn’t comfortable with that decision. When my receipt was printed, I double, triple, and quadruple checked my choices.”
Mika said that while she doesn’t feel optimistic about the results given recent surveys, she said she was hopeful that things are changing.
“I can say that I do feel optimistic that people are realizing a truth that somehow got buried in the past years of politics: that we do and we have always had the power and the choice.”
The 30-year-old host and producer was one of nearly 62 million registered voters expected to cast their ballots in the country’s crucial midterm election here on Monday, the first national election after strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency in 2016. While Duterte himself is not up for election, the polls are largely seen as a referendum on the President and his policies.
Over 18,000 posts are up for grabs, including all seats in the House of Representatives, and local government posts. But the most coveted of these are the 12 senatorial seats which will make up half of the Senate.
Latest surveys bear good news for the administration: most of the candidates faring well are supportive of Duterte. The opposition, a coalition of 8 candidates, has only seen one of their own crack the top 12 in recent surveys. This, despite controversial policies that have polarized Filipinos such as Duterte's war against drugs and foreign policy shift towards China.
Yet while Duterte’s allies have ranked highly in surveys, many young voters have voiced their support for opposition candidates. In youth mock polls in colleges and universities across the country, the difference is vastly different from official surveys – with many students opting for activists, human rights lawyers, candidates who are critical of the President. It’s an important insight, since 19 million of the registered voters are millennials and Gen Z, constituting around 31% of the midterm election voters.
One of these young voters is 22-year-old Marx Fidel, who said he voted for all eight candidates of the opposition slate, as well as other labor bets and the Kabataan Party List, which is focused on youth issues.
He said he voted for these candidates, because “I truly believe [they] will relieve the Philippines from corruption and fight for its sovereignty.”
The student-artist, who cast his ballot about 54 kilometers south of Makati City in Indang, Cavite, echoed Mika’s disappointment in recent opinion polls – but said he is happy with what student mock polls have shown.
"Well, I've always believed that the national polls are just tools for the powerful few to mind-condition people to vote for them,” he said, expressing doubt about the numbers and the method of surveying. "The mock election and polls from different universities nationwide tell quite the opposite story. In fact, the overall choices of the students are what I know can make a change, and I'm really glad about that.”
Whether or not the youth will deliver however, is deeply debatable. In many ways, the youth vote is largely a myth: young Filipinos are highly fragmented across social classes, and vary in their educational, religious and social backgrounds resulting in varied choices – much like the generations above them.
Aldrin Castro, 25, said he did not vote for straight slates, but had a mix of opposition and Duterte-backed candidates. "I voted for those I like," he said.
Another voter, Vhendrick Dumangan, who is unemployed, said he went with 12 senators who are supportive of the president – including Duterte’s closest aide Bong Go; the President's hand-picked former Philippine National Police Chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa; Imee Marcos, daughter of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos; and former senator Jinggoy Estrada, who is facing plunder and graft charges and is out on bail for the campaign.
“I’m a member of the Iglesia ni Cristo, so we vote straight,” the 26-year-old said, referring to a religious group also known as INC, which boasts nearly 2 million voting members and traditionally votes as a bloc. Large religious organizations such as INC have been traditionally wooed by politicians with resources and promises of government positions because of the strong numbers they are able to deliver.
Vhendrick is far from alone in his support for the president. In 2016, exit polls showed that 71-year-old Duterte still appealed to younger voters who saw the former Mayor as a welcome alternative to political elites and oligarchs.
But some have changed their minds since then, shifting their own votes and perspectives based on the past three years.
In Quezon City, Greg Diaz, a 34-year-old businessman, said he voted for every single candidate of the opposition slate, along with a few other wild cards – a shift from his past preferences.
“I want real change this time. Last time I was expecting if I voted for someone who’s not from the normal political families, things would change,” he said. “But apparently it didn’t. So right now I’m hoping that things would change for the better. Without the killing and all that stuff.”
For Joachim Mendoza, 26, who voted in Davao City, his hope is even simpler – which is that the branches of government work the way they should. "I’m hoping that the Senate and the House of Representatives somehow stay independent of the executive, at the very least."
Joachim's concern is a valid one, as surveys are spurring fears that the elections will result in a Senate that is not independent and largely controlled by the President. Currently, of the 12 that are staying in the Senate and are not up for re-election, 8 are considered to be allies of President Duterte. If most of the 12 newly elected senators are also partnered with the administration, Duterte will become the most powerful president since former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“I’m hoping there would be stronger checks and balances against the President’s war on drugs, these deals with the Chinese government, among many other things," Joachim said. "I would also like to have the divorce bill passed, more rights for workers and employees, more protections for minorities in our country, and more, but I feel like sometimes these are just a pipe dream at this point.”
This sense of frustration was a common feeling among young voters whom VICE spoke to. Diane Achas, a 31-year-old marketing professional, said she voted “because I’m sick of what’s happening in the country. I’m hoping these people who will be voted for this election will be much better than before.”
Natasha Magdaluyo, 20, also did not waste time executing her civic duty. Too young to vote in the last presidential elections, the student and first-time voter told VICE, “It’s part of my responsibility as a Filipino citizen to let my voice be heard.”
For the most part, the elections went on with few glitches as of publication time. While there were vote buying incidents and various reports on social media of longer waits due to machines malfunctioning – effectively turning off some voters who chose to leave – many said their voting experience was pleasant and relatively quick.
Back in Makati City, inconvenience was far from Mika's mind, as emotions overcame her when it was time to vote.
“When it was finally my turn and the ballot was given to me, I got incredibly emotional. I couldn’t believe I was holding back tears,” she said. “I haven’t prayed in years. I prayed when I held my ballot.”
“I hope that this year and the years to come, that more informed voters will come forward, and that we get honest and intelligent leaders.”