Supporters make last-ditch efforts to campaign for their candidates outside polling stations in Manila during the Philippines' mid-term elections on May 13. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
Filipinos trooped to polling stations on May 13 to cast their votes in midterm elections touted as a litmus test on the popularity of President Rodrigo Duterte's administration after three years in power.
About 62 million voters were expected to choose from 43,500 candidates vying for about 18,000 national and local posts, including 12 seats in the 24-member Senate and 243 seats in the House of Representatives.
The IBON Foundation, an independent think-tank, noted that this year's elections could be one of the last chances for Filipinos to try to preserve freedom and democracy as Duterte’s administration implements harsh neoliberal economic policies and undermines democracy.
In an article published on its website ahead of the polls, the organization said "midterm elections have always been crucial for any incumbent, as results will either affirm or reject the programs and policies … of the ruling party."
"The Senate could be the last stronghold of democratic processes," it said, adding that it could be all that is left to "side with the people and defend whatever remains of Philippine democracy, people's rights and welfare, and the country's sovereignty."
Prayers for peaceful polls
On the eve of the elections, Catholic parishes held prayers for "credible, honest and peaceful" polls.
In Manila, a Mass and a candlelit religious procession was held to pray for "clean and honest elections," especially since election day this year fell on the feast of the Our Lady of Fatima.
In a statement, Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo called on voters to pray before voting so that they will not select "a thief, dishonest person or one who promotes killing?"
“If we pray over our vote, will we not allow our vote to be influenced by money, or much worse, sell it?" said the bishop.
"We are poor and people have already robbed us of basic services in life, of our environment, of our jobs. Let them not rob us of our dignity. Our one vote is our dignity, let us not sell it," he added.
The Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches made the same call for prayers and discernment.
Evangelical Bishop Noel Pantoja said this year's elections "give us a chance to correct [the mistakes of the past]" and to "promote a culture of integrity."
"The freedom to choose our leaders is God’s gift.... Let us value this freedom, and not exchange long-term benefits for temporary gains," said the prelate.
A mother holds her child as she votes in Manila during the May 13 mid-term elections in the Philippines. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
On the island of Mindoro, one of the election issues raised by activists was mining.
Hundreds of church and pro-environment activists protested ahead of the polls to remind voters to elect candidates who will honor the province's 25-year mining moratorium.
"We need to choose political leaders who can support and be relied upon in our campaign to save the threatened environment," said Father Edwin Gariguez, head of Caritas Philippines.
The priest made the call as environmentalists raised the alarm over reports that authorities allowed a mining corporation to explore 11,216 hectares of land on the island.
The mining project is expected to produce about 100 to 120 million tons of nickel ore over a period of 15 to 20 years.
The Oriental Mindoro provincial government, however, has imposed a 25-year large-scale mining ban through an ordinance issued in January 2002.
Environmentalists warn some of the proposed mining sites sit near a watershed and an ancestral domain area of tribal people.
Earlier, church leaders appealed to voters to "vote wisely" despite the bishops’ conference stating that it will leave partisan politics to lay people.
Conference president, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, denied reports that the bishops had endorsed a number of senatorial candidates.
"The [conference] did not make any such endorsements," he said. "Bishops and priests are not allowed to do that. That is clearly partisan politics," said Archbishop Valles.
He said bishops continue to appeal to all Filipinos to "vote wisely ... to pray for a peaceful, credible and honest elections."
An opposition legislator, meanwhile, said a number of congressional and local candidates were running unopposed.
Lito Atienza, deputy minority leader of the House of Representatives, said the situation has brought to light the country’s "dysfunctional democracy."
"Having a lone candidate for an elective post is bad for voters who are left with no choice," he said.
"It is also bad for government and for our system of checks and balances, and bad for our political parties as well," Atienza added.
There are at least 34 candidates for congressional seats who are running unchallenged.
"What is happening now is that many candidates are just negotiating among themselves, with the stronger ones usually buying out their weaker rivals," according to the legislator.
Authorities tightened security ahead of the polls to offset “possible attacks” by communist rebels and other groups out to sabotage the elections.
"They may attempt to but they will never succeed," said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo.
He said the military’s security measures have so far yielded "very encouraging results."
It has deployed 98,000 soldiers throughout the country, especially in the southern region of Mindanao.
Arevalo assured that soldiers would not take sides during the polls. "The only political exercise that we can do constitutionally is for us to cast our votes," he said.
The Philippine National Police has also deployed 160,000 officers and personnel to safeguard the elections.
Authorities have identified over 900 "election hotspots" or areas of concern due to possible violence due to political rivalry and armed groups.
As of May 11, at least 43 reported incidents of election-related violence had resulted in the killing of 20 people and injuries to 24 others.
Madonna Virola contributed to this report from Oriental Mindoro