Election workers try to fix a jammed ballot inside a counting machine at a polling center in the Manuel L. Quezon elementary school, Manila, Philippines. Image Credit: AP

Manila: Malfunctioning machines and hundreds of arrests for suspected vote buying disrupted the Philippines’ midterm elections on Monday.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is poised for a majority win in both houses of Congress, even with slowing economic growth and controversial policies including a deadly drug war. Over 18,000 government positions are up for grabs in the midterm elections, including half of the 24-seat Senate and about 300 posts in the House.

Polls are set to close at 6pm and among the stumbles have been defects in 600 voting machines, causing long queues and delays in several areas, the Commission on Elections said.

“It’s larger than what we saw in 2016 and therefore, it is a bit jarring and surprising,” poll body spokesman James Jimenez told a briefing in Manila. The glitches have only hit a small portion of more than 85,000 machines deployed, he said.

More than 200 people have been arrested for alleged vote-buying after authorities received a large number of complaints, police chief Oscar Albayalde said at a separate briefing. Police are also investigating a shooting incident outside of a polling station in the southern province of Sulu that left five people wounded. Late-night explosions before the 6am start of voting Monday were reported in the southern island in Mindanao, where no one was hurt.

So far, violence eased compared with the 2016 vote, Albayalde said. The police recorded 20 deaths and 24 injuries since the start of the election season in mid-January. That compares with 106 violent incidents for the same period in 2016.

Counting will commence as soon as the polls close and the winners of the 12 senator seats will be proclaimed within the week, Jimenez said.

Opinion polls predict allies of firebrand leader Duterte will dominate the race over a divided opposition. Duterte, 74, hasn’t lost an election in his three-decade political career.

A victory for Duterte’s allies in the Senate could speed up policy implementation, including tax reform and his plan to move the country to a federal system of government. But it could also have negative implications for Philippine democracy by removing one of the last checks on Duterte’s power.

A big win will help Duterte push his policy priorities in the last three years of his term when leaders typically lose support, said Marthe Hinojales, senior Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. “In the case of a sweeping Duterte-ally win in the Senate, two reforms that we expect to gain ground in legislature are the next phase of reforms — the bill lowering corporate taxes and federalism proposals — which can bring about regulatory uncertainty.”

The opposition has remained “disorganised” and “fragmented” since the 2016 presidential elections, said Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at the John Cabot University in Italy. Duterte’s critics from the Liberal Party and leftist groups fielded different Senate bets and campaigned separately.

“They are making this election about Duterte and that only reinforces Duterte,” said Welsh, who specialises in Southeast Asian politics.

It’s likely Duterte’s opponents will be almost completely shut out in the Senate race, said University of the Philippines political science professor Aries Arugay. “This reflects his ability to control an electoral contest,” Arugay said. “You still have a very formidable incumbent administration.”

Pulse Asia’s latest pre-election survey shows only one opposition candidate for the Senate — incumbent Senator Bam Aquino, a cousin of a former president — has a shot at winning. The last time a lone opposition candidate won a midterm Senate seat was in 1967, under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Duterte has attacked opposition candidates in his campaign speeches — from calling them gay to making fun of their teeth. Despite criticisms against his drug war that has killed thousands and his government’s pursuit of critics including journalist Maria Ressa, Duterte remains widely popular. Latest poll shows his satisfaction rating is back to a record high.

“Those who will be elected in Congress will be the administration’s partners, so it’s better if the winners are the ones endorsed by the President,” Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said at a briefing before the vote.

A majority win for Duterte’s allies in the Senate and House contests may have bigger implications for Philippine democracy, said Lee Morgenbesser, a Southeast Asia expert from Griffith University in Australia. Incumbent senators have investigated Duterte’s drug war, and also blocked controversial measures including his federalism push and his plan to reinstate death penalty.

“Since Duterte has seized control of the lower house through pork-barrel politics, stacked the high court with loyalists and launched assaults on media outlets, the Senate is the last real roadblock to him further eroding democracy in the Philippines,” Morgenbesser said.

Beyond the midterms, the opposition can capitalise on issues where it can garner public support — particularly Duterte’s closeness with China — if it wants a fighting chance in the 2022 presidential elections, Arugay said.

“The territorial dispute with China is an issue that can evolve into Duterte’s Waterloo, mainly if he will be painted as favouring foreigners over Filipinos,” Arugay said.