Manila: From Imelda Marcos to Manny Pacquiao, familiar names of Philippine political clans and celebrities dominated the ballots for Monday’s congressional and local elections, which will gauge popular support for the president’s anti-corruption drive and other reforms.
Despite scattered violence and fears of fraud, the polls were relatively peaceful as soldiers and police secured stations in potentially violent areas. Polling started at 7 a.m. and was to end at 7 p.m. with first results expected in 48 hours.
More than 52 million Filipinos have registered to elect 18,000 officials, including half of the 24-member Senate, nearly 300 members of the House of Representatives and leaders of a Muslim autonomous region in the south, where Islamic insurgents, al-Qaida-linked gunmen and private armies have long been a concern.
The logistical nightmare has been compounded by worries that some of about 80,000 automated counting machines, which are being used for only the second time since the 2010 presidential election, may fail in regions grappling with power outages. About 1,000 portable generators have been transported to problematic areas.
The official election watchdog, Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, said it has received reports of some breakdowns, including in metropolitan Manila. The supplier said it had expected 200-300 units to malfunction but it had 2,000 replacements on standby. Elections Commission Chairman Sixto Brillantes said the problems were minor and the polling generally smooth.
The outcome will determine the level of support for President Benigno Aquino III’s reforms in his remaining three years in office. Aquino has been praised at home and abroad for cracking down on widespread corruption, backing key legislation and concluding an initial peace agreement with Muslim rebels.
But he cannot run for re-election and a choice of his successor, who will be expected to continue on the same reform path, will depend on the new political landscape.
Candidates backed by Aquino are running against a coalition headed by Vice President Jejomar Binay and deposed President Joseph Estrada. Although officially No. 2 in the country, Binay has emerged as the administration’s rival and may be positioning himself for the 2016 presidential race.
Among 33 senatorial candidates are two of Aquino’s relatives, Binay’s neophyte daughter, Estrada’s son, a son of the sitting chamber president, a son of a late president, a spouse and children of former senators and there’s a possibility that two pairs of siblings will be sitting in the same house. Currently, 15 senators have relatives serving in elective positions.
The race for the House is even more of a family affair. Toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ widow, the flamboyant 83-year-old Imelda, is expected to keep her seat as a representative for Ilocos Norte province, the husband’s birthplace where the locals kept electing the Marcoses despite allegations of corruption and abuse during their long rule. Marcos’ daughter, Imee is seeking re-election as governor and the son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., is already a senator.
Boxing star and incumbent Rep. Manny Pacquiao is running unopposed and building a dynasty of his own: his brother Rogelio is running to represent his southern district and his wife Jinkee is vying to become vice-governor for Sarangani province.
Estrada, who was ousted in a 2001 “people power” revolt on corruption allegations, is running for mayor of Manila, hoping to capitalize on his movie star popularity, particularly among the poor masses.
Philippine elections have long been dominated by politicians belonging to the same bloodlines. At least 250 political families have monopolized power across the country, although such dynasties are prohibited under the 1987 constitution. Congress - long controlled by members of powerful clans targeted by the constitutional ban - has failed to pass the law needed to define and enforce the provision.
“Wherever you go, you see the names of these people since we were kids. It is still them,” businessman Martin Tunac, 54, said after voting in Manila. “One of the bad things about political dynasties is they control everything, including business.”
School counselor Evelyn Dioquino said that the proliferation of political dynasties was a cultural issue and other candidates stood little chance because clans “have money, so they are the only ones who can afford (to run). Of course, if you have no logistics, you can’t run for office.”
Critics worry that a single family’s stranglehold on different levels of government could stymie checks against abuses and corruption. A widely cited example is the 2009 massacre of 58 people, including 32 media workers, in an ambush blamed on rivalry between powerful clans in southern Maguindanao province.
At least 46 people have been killed in the run-up to the elections since January, police said. Assailants fired a grenade at a school where the voting was under way Monday in southern Marawi city, but missed and hit a house, wounding three people. Armed followers of a mayoral candidate clashed with marines in nearby Sulu province, where troops replaced local police.
Ana Maria Tabunda from the independent pollster Pulse Asia said that dynasties restrict democracy, but added that past surveys by her organization have shown that most Filipinos are less concerned about the issue than with the benefits and patronage they can receive from particular candidates. Voters also often pick candidates with the most familiar surnames instead of those with the best records, she said.
“It’s name recall, like a brand. They go by that,” she said.
At least seven people were killed while a presidential aide survived an ambush, authorities said.
All of the deaths on Monday were in the violence-plagued south, where a Muslim separatist insurgency has been waged for decades and political warlords employ private armies.
In the most violent incident, supporters of rival candidates for mayor on a small southern island in the Sulu archipelago opened fire on each other, leaving three combatants dead, local police and a military spokesman said.
Unidentified gunmen opened fire on a vehicle carrying voters on the nearby island of Jolo, killing the driver and wounding four passengers, said provincial police chief Senior Superintendent Antonio Freyra.
Three supporters of a local candidate were killed and eight wounded by unidentified gunmen in another attack in Zamboanga del Sur, a separate province in the south, the regional military chief said.
Meanwhile, President Benigno Aquino’s political adviser, Manuel Mamba, escaped unharmed after his convoy was attacked in the northern town of Alcala, presidential spokesman Ramon Carandang said.
He said Mamba was in the area to support a brother who was a candidate for provincial governor under Aquino’s Liberal Party.
Mamba, talking to radio station DZMM in Manila, said he saw his brother’s rival brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle as his convoy passed on the national highway.
He said he then heard shots which hit one of the vehicles in the convoy.
More than 60 people had already been killed in the lead-up to the elections, in which more than 18,000 positions - from town mayors and provincial governors to members of the nation’s legislature - are being contested.