Midterm elections in the Philippines will serve not only as a de facto referendum on President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial rule, but could also strengthen his grip on power, smooth the way for an anointed successor, or even extend his tenure beyond the current one-term limit.

The May 13 elections, where more than 18,000 elected positions will be up for grabs, could be the most lopsided electoral contest in favor of an incumbent government in contemporary Philippine history, according to public opinion polls.

If so, a Duterte-dominated legislature could ram through proposed legislation to change the Philippines to a federal system of governance, a move critics see as a smokescreen to prolong his tenure beyond the constitution’s six-year, one-term limit.

There are now three different proposed versions of a new constitution, one promoted by Duterte’s PDP-Laban party, another by a presidentially appointed constitutional commission of leading legal and political experts, and yet another by the Congress, which is dominated by Duterte’s allies and led by former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

All three versions lack a clear transitional roadmap, leaving legal room for Duterte to personally reshape a new constitutional order along his preferences and potentially in his image. In particular, critics have raised concerns about the lack of explicit restrictions on Duterte re-running for the national leadership once a new constitution comes into force.

Then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte raising a clenched fist during his campaign sortie in Lingayen, Pangasinan, north of Manila. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte raises a clenched fist during his campaign sortie in Lingayen, Pangasinan, north of Manila. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

One version allows almost unlimited re-election for the entrenched elite and political dynasties, while another would weaken or eliminate institutional checks and balances including the vice presidency, historically a bastion of opposition. The debate over which version to prioritize could start soon after a Duterte-dominated Congress is seated after the midterm polls.

Pulse Asia, a leading Philippine polling agency, showed in a survey just days before the end of the formal campaign period that Duterte’s political allies are poised to dominate the next elected legislature. That apparently also includes the upper house Senate, a traditional bastion of independence and check on executive branch excesses where half (12) of the body’s 24 seats are in electoral play.

The Senate has called into question Duterte’s bloody drug war, rejected his government’s illiberal legislation including a proposed reinstitution of the death penalty and sharp reduction of the age for criminal liability, and nixed his designs for charter change to create a de facto imperial presidency.

Historically, government allies who have benefitted from the resources and popularity of incumbents have managed to capture about half of the Senate’s seats at mid-term elections, with opposition candidates and independents taking the rest.

But Duterte will be in a strong position to transform the country’s political system, a move that could erode various democratic checks and balances if his allies come to dominate the Senate after the mid-term polls.

According to a Pulse Asia survey conducted between April 10 and 14, eight out of 14 probable winners in the Senate race are core Duterte supporters, while a number of others are seen as his tactical allies or independents. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2%.

President Rodrigo Duterte (L) with personal assistant Christopher Lawrence ‘Bong’ Go (R). Photo: Philippine Government Handout

The administration’s allies include Cynthia Villar (tied at number 1), Pia Cayetano (tied at number 3), Bong Go (4th-8th), Edgardo “Sonny” Angara (4th to 8th), Ramon “Bong” Revilla (5th-9th), Bato dela Rosa (5th to 9th), Koko Pimentel (10th-14th), Imee Marcos (10th to 14th), Jinggoy Estrada (10th to 14th), JV Estrada Ejercito (10th to 16th).

The re-electionist Bam Aquino (10th to 14th) is the only probable winner from the opposition, while Grace Poe (tied at 1st) and Nancy Binay (6th to 9th) are the only two candidates considered as full-fledged independents.

Opposition candidates’ campaigns have suffered from a dearth of resources, volunteers and local government units willing to host their events. A majority of the opposition’s senatorial candidates, meanwhile, were relative unknowns before joining the campaign.

This has placed them at a stark disadvantage against the administration’s better-known and well-resourced candidates, who have benefited from the full support of a popular president. The latest Social Weather Station survey puts Duterte’s approval ratings at a historic high of 79%, higher than any of his predecessors at this stage in their presidencies.

Former presidential candidate, cabinet secretary and senator Manuel “Mar” Roxas III, meanwhile, is not among the Senate’s probable winners according to polls, marking a steep decline in his popularity compared to previous election campaigns.

Then presidential candidate Manuel Roxas casts his ballot in the election at a polling station in Roxas City, Capiz province, May 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tara Yap

To be sure, Roxas came into the race on an electoral losing streak, including a big defeat at the 2016 presidential election as well as another loss for the vice presidency in 2010. He placed second in both election races.

This time, Roxas has been largely absent from the opposition’s campaign featuring the so-called Otso Diretso (Straight Eight) slate of candidates. The eight include leading human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, election lawyer Romulo Macalintal, former congressman Erin Tañada, peace activist Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, and ex-congressman and navy officer Gary Alejano.

Only Bam Aquino and Roxas, however, have so far featured among the top 20 candidates in recent surveys.

Cutting a largely solitary figure, Roxas was out of the campaign race for weeks in order to oversee family affairs amid the birth of twin sons. But as Duterte’s allies close in on near total domination of the legislature, the risk is that Philippine governance will soon be transformed from democracy into a Duterte family affair.