A version of this story first appeared on VICE Asia.
MANILA, Philippines – Halfway through Rodrigo Duterte's six-year term as president, 62 million registered voters are heading to the polls for midterm elections. The Monday vote is widely seen as a referendum on Duterte’s presidency, which has been defined by his strongman tendencies and deadly war on drugs.
Over 18,000 local and provincial posts are up for grabs, including all seats in the House of Representatives. But the most coveted are the 12 seats in play in the 24-seat Senate, and if Duterte-backed candidates win the majority of those seats, as polls predict, he will become the most powerful leader since the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Here’s what you need to know about the Philippine midterm elections.
Why do these elections matter?
While Duterte has been criticized internationally for his ultra-violent war on drugs and his verbal scorn of everyone from the pope to Barack Obama, he remains wildly popular in the Philippines. He currently enjoys an approval rating of 79 percent, his highest since becoming president.
The strongman is now using that popularity to help anoint candidates who will blindly support his policies over the next three years. A Senate stacked with loyalists would allow Duterte to push through controversial new legislation, including changing the country’s constitution, which critics warn could accelerate the president’s slide to more-authoritarian rule.
Duterte won three years ago on a populist platform, elected into power by 16 million Filipinos — about a third of the country’s estimated 54.6 million voters who cast ballots in 2016.
Since his election, however, his controversial policies, such as his deadly war on drugs and his foreign policy shift towards China, have polarized Filipinos.
The results of these elections would dictate the momentum of Duterte’s remaining three years, and the fate of the policies he’s instituted and or wants to pass. More senatorial allies means more support for his proposed measures, such as changing the country’s form of government to federalism, controversial tax reforms, and continuing the drug war.
Who are the contenders?
The Philippines follows a multiparty system, unlike the distinctive two-party system of the United States. Rather than ideologies and platforms, candidates in the Philippines join political parties and form coalitions based on their resources and popularity, with the alliances largely considered to be temporary.
As a result, Filipinos often select their candidates based not on their parties but rather on whether they’re supportive of the administration — in this case, of Duterte.
Based on the most recent surveys, among those ranking in the top 12 in the Senate race are the president’s closest aide, Bong Go; Duterte’s hand-picked former Philippine national police chief, Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa; Imee Marcos, daughter of the infamous dictator; and former senator Jinggoy Estrada, who is facing plunder charges and is out on bail for the campaign. The others ranking in the top 12 are senators seeking re-election.
The main opposition is a coalition of eight candidates who are trying to find a foothold in the government. Among them is former senator Mar Roxas, who ran for president against Duterte but finished second; veteran human rights lawyer Chel Diokno; and Samira Gutoc, a Filipino journalist, activist and legislator. But only one opposition candidate is polling among the top 12.
Who’s popular with the youth, and why?
The nation’s youth, like the rest of the Filipino voters, are divided on who they’re backing. Almost 19 million of the registered voters are millennials and Gen Z, constituting around 31 percent of the potential midterm voters. The youth voting bloc, however, is largely a myth: Young Filipinos are highly fragmented across social classes and vary in their educational, religious and social backgrounds.
Online, many young netizens are vocal about supporting new blood, nontraditional politicians who could bring a fresh take to government. But while many of the opposition senators are highly popular on social media, this hasn’t translated into survey results so far. In 2016, exit polls also showed that 71-year-old Duterte appealed to younger voters who saw the former mayor as a welcome alternative to political elites and oligarchs.
What are the risks?
Recent surveys are spurring fears that the elections will result in a Senate that is not independent and largely controlled by Duterte. Currently, of the 12 who are staying in the Senate and are not up for re-election, 8 are considered to be allies of the president.
If most of the 12 newly elected senators, as expected, also back the administration, observers worry that Durterte will return the country to an era much like that of Marcos, whose two-decade rule from 1965 to 1986 was defined by its brutality, corruption and extravagance.
Similarly, Duterte has shown a willingness to ride roughshod over democratic norms and favor his allies regardless of their credentials. He’s undermined freedom of speech, repeatedly attacked or jailed media figures critical of his policies, and instituted a violent war on drugs that has killed as many as 20,000 people.
Historically, the last senatorial race wherein only one opposition candidate managed to win a seat was in 1967, during Marcos' era — five years before Martial Law was declared.Cover: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, gestures beside Special Assistant to the President Christopher "Bong" Go who filed his candidacy for senator for next year's midterm elections at the Commission on Elections in Manila, Philippines on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. The midterm elections are scheduled for May 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)