MANILA, Philippines — 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 killings 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-Qaeda-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.
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 President 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 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.
In the latest violence, gunmen killed five people and wounded two mayoral candidates in separate attacks over the weekend. Last month, gunmen fired on a truck carrying a town mayor and his supporters in southern Lanao del Norte province, killing 13 people including his daughter.
The 125,000-strong military has helped the government in urging candidates to shun violence. An army general took off with his troops aboard two helicopters and dropped leaflets calling for peaceful elections in Masbate, a central province notorious for political killings.
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.