More than 18,000 posts are at stake, including half of the seats in the upper house Senate.
Manila, Philippines – Up at the crack of dawn to beat long queues and the sweltering summer heat, Filipinos on Monday headed to the schoolyards and other public halls designated as their polling precincts, in an election for legislators and local executives that is expected to strengthen President Rodrigo Duterte’s hold on power halfway into his term.
Polls officially opened at 6am local time (22:00 GMT on Sunday) and will close at 6pm (10:00 GMT).
More than 61 million Filipinos are registered to vote in the midterm polls, with roughly 43,000 candidates vying for some 18,000 government posts.
“It was fairly easy and convenient,” John Binalla, a young IT employee, said after casting his vote at a public elementary school in Mandaluyong City, a suburb of the capital, Manila.
Voting went ahead without any major problems across the country of more than 7,000 islands, although there were a handful of reports of glitches in the computerised ballot scanners.
The highest positions at stake are 12 seats in the Senate to recompose half of the higher congressional chamber already dominated by senators allied or supportive of Duterte’s administration.READ MORE
Voter preference surveys by private pollsters predict a favourable outcome for the administration, with its senatorial candidates poised to win up to two-thirds of the contested seats.
Although mostly supportive of Duterte, the current Senate has so far tempered his more polarising objectives, such as reinstating the death penalty or redrafting the constitution to change the form of government from unitary to federal – a move that may allow Duterte to stay in power indefinitely.
Critics have expressed fears that a victory for Duterte’s allies would reduce the Senate’s independence and prevent it from keeping a check on the president, whom they expect to further push for his platforms as his single six-year term enters its home run.
“Clearly, there are few who make a stand in the government nowadays,” said Senator Leila de Lima, jailed on illegal drug charges after she ran an investigation on thousands of killings in Duterte’s “war on drugs”.
“Our institutions lack voices for justice and truth. Many fear persecution and choose to kowtow just to stay in power,” she said in a statement on Monday.
One of only four incumbent opposition senators, de Lima urged voters to “reject the liars, the corrupt, the plunderers”.
This was a clear jab at Duterte’s senatorial slate, which includes two former senators charged with plunder and a daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The candidates’ track record were among key issues on voters’ minds.
“I really looked at the candidates’ status. Some of them have a really bad record so we have to be careful about that,” said Rolly Mabunga, an employee based in Manila.
“To me, what’s most important is they have experience to show for,” he added.
Voters are choosing senators from among Duterte’s broad coalition of allies from different political parties, a bloc of eight opposition figures and a slew of independent candidates who are not backed by either the administration or the opposition.
Aside from questioning Duterte’s choice of senatorial candidates, the “Otso Diretso” or “Eight Straight” opposition bloc focused their campaign criticising Duterte’s China-friendly policies in light of Beijing’s occupation of areas in the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and demanded accountability for drug war killings, which some watchdogs said have reached more than 20,000.
However, the opposition bloc appears unlikely to win many Senate seats. The latest voter preference survey indicated only one of them will probably succeed: Bam Aquino, a cousin of former President Benigno Aquino.
Analysts say that despite fierce criticism of Duterte’s administration, the opposition bloc’s campaign failed to sway most voters, who are still counting on the president’s promise of “change” in terms of alleviating poverty and combatting criminality.
“The current administration has accomplished things. Duterte has political will and the country needs it,” voter Rolly Mabunga told Al Jazeera.
He said he chose a mix of administration, opposition and independent candidates. “It would be nice to have checks-and-balances in the Senate, to make sure ongoing projects continue but without corruption or anomalies.”
Mabunga said he favoured Duterte’s “war on drugs” but it needs to be done lawfully and follow due process instead of randomly arresting and killing suspects.
For her part, Nerisa Jimenez, a government employee, said she backed candidates who had already passed laws as legislators, while others, such as John Binalla and his mother, Dale, said they were wary of candidates with a long history in politics.
“We don’t want candidates from political dynasties or those who support that plan to shift to federalism,” Dale Binalla, a businesswoman, told Al Jazeera.
“We ran a thorough check on their platforms and backgrounds. Some of them said they opposed political dynasties but were themselves members of such dynasties,” John Binalla added.
“I’ve seen many elections and the same names and faces keep coming up,” said Jerry Somao-i, an unemployed man who flew from the country’s southern Surigao province to cast his vote in Manila, where he is registered as a voter, only to find out his account has been deactivated since he missed the last election of village leaders.
“I would have voted for the new ones. Unfortunately, it seems I won’t be able to,” Somao-i told Al Jazeera.
The Commission on Elections has opened a 24-hour help desk to assist voters with such concerns, as well as to report anomalies they might encounter.
The commission strongly cautioned voters against operators from candidates who would offer to pay them for their votes.
“Vote-buying” is one of the most serious concerns in the Philippines’ electronically-automated elections. The electoral commission has reported dozens of such cases even before the polls opened, and it said many more instances go undetected.
Candidates proven to have attempted to buy votes are charged with a grave election offence, jailed and disqualified from public office. However, very few cases are brought to justice.
Initial results are expected within hours after polls close, and the winners will be officially declared in the coming weeks.
The last midterm election, in 2013, yielded a 77 percent voter turnout.