MANILA - Filipino voters on Monday are set to cast ballots in national midterm elections seen as a referendum on the performance of President Rodrigo Duterte over the last three years.
Twelve seats in the Senate, 243 seats in the House of Representatives, and another 61 seats for party-list organizations in the lawmaking body are up for grabs. Also being contested are 17,750 provincial-, municipal- and city-level positions across the country.
More than 61 million people are registered to vote in the country of more than 107 million. Another 1.82 million Filipinos abroad have also been allowed to take part in overseas voting that began April 13.
"On Monday, our countrymen will issue the verdict...This is a big moment for the strongest democracy in Asia," senatorial candidate Francis Tolentino, Duterte's former political adviser, said at his party's final rally Saturday night in the Manila suburb of Pasig City.
Clarita Carlos, a retired professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, said in a recent forum that the administration is backing candidates "who are more likely to vote for a change in the Constitution to federalism, maybe."
Among the campaign promises made by Duterte in 2016 was shifting the current unitary form of government to a federal system, believing it is the key to spreading progress in the countryside. The others include his deadly crackdown against illegal drugs and battle against corruption.
Christopher Lawrence Go, a former Duterte aide vying for a Senate seat, consistently called on crowds during the 90-day campaign to vote for candidates backed by the administration if they support the president's programs and policies.
"President Duterte is mad at criminals. Me, too! The president is mad at corrupt officials. Me, too! The president is mad at drug addicts. Me, too!" Go has said.
Incumbent Sen. Francis Pangilinan, campaign manager of the opposition senatorial slate, on the other hand, promotes their eight candidates by citing their collective stand on issues hounding the Duterte administration.
"I want a Senate that will fight for the country's interest and oppose Chinese invasion. I want the daily killings to end and instead, go after and put behind bars the drug lords that are facilitating the entry of tons of shabu in the country," Pangilinan said, referring to the drug crystal meth.
Duterte is being criticized for tolerating Chinese actions in the disputed South China Sea in favor of better economic relations with the world's No. 2 economy.
The opposition coalition includes former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, a key member of the legal team that successfully argued the Philippines' landmark maritime case against China at The Hague, Manuel Roxas, a former senator and Cabinet member, and human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno.
"If you believe there is a need to defend our seas, our lives and our livelihood, the dignity of our government, write down the names (of our candidates)," Pangilinan said.
The research group and think-tank IBON Foundation notes that the 2019 midterm elections come "at the heels of the Duterte administration's implementation of harshest neoliberal economic policies and undermining democracy."
"The Duterte presidency has seemingly consolidated the Executive, lower house and even the judiciary under its influence, and the Senate could be the last stronghold of democratic processes," Jose Lorenzo Lim said in an article.
In election rallies, former national police chief Ronald dela Rosa, another Duterte-backed senatorial candidate, has said that being loyal to and supportive of Duterte does not mean that the presidential office could tell him what to do as senator.
He declared though, "You must be aware that I ran for senator because of my desire to support President Duterte in his remaining years in the presidency."
"If you want to spare President Duterte from headaches over the Senate, you all vote for the (administration-backed) candidates," he added.
For IBON Foundation's Lim, candidates should seek to protect and promote the agriculture sector; support genuine agrarian reform; uphold people's rights and welfare, including those related to employment; ensure accessibility of basic social services; and, promote environmental sustainability.
"The Philippine Senate could be the last democratic institution for the government's checks and balances, independent of and not beholden to the power ambitions of the presidency, and expected to side with the people and defend whatever remains of Philippine democracy, people's rights and welfare, and the country's sovereignty," he said.
The elections also highlight again the lingering defects of the country's political and electoral systems, which, according to Carlos, the retried political science professor, need institutional changes.