President Benigno Aquino is seeking to bolster his support in the Senate as Filipinos vote in elections today, as he looks to expand an anti-corruption drive in the second half of his term.
Voters formed long queues outside precinct offices to pick half of the 24-seat Senate, members of the House of Representatives and other local officials. One poll earlier this month forecasted that candidates backed by Aquino will win nine of the 12 Senate seats up for grabs.
Aquino, who has overseen an economic revival during the first three years of his single six-year term, said in a May 8 interview he wants to reduce the number of people who travel abroad to earn a living. Tightening his grip on the Senate will also enable the 53-year-old leader to push for stronger anti-graft measures and changes in education.
“The president’s legislative agenda is unfinished,” said Prospero de Vera, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines. “A friendly Senate would be instrumental.”
Senators are elected nationally among the country’s estimated 106 million people, while the House of Representatives, which has more than 280 members, is chosen from candidates representing local districts. Bills must pass both houses before Aquino signs them into law.
Since four of the 12 senators whose terms expire in 2016 ran with Aquino’s coalition when he took power, a victory for nine more allies in this election would give him an effective majority in the upper house. Even without that overt support during his first three years in office, Aquino managed to secure Senate backing on key bills such as raising liquor taxes and providing free contraception.
Aquino, whose mother Corazon won 22 of the 24 Senate seats for her administration after becoming president in 1986, has appeared with his favored candidates on the campaign trail, using his popularity to bolster their prospects. His approval rating rose 4 percentage points to 72 percent in March, polling body Pulse Asia Inc. said in an e-mailed statement April 8.
Senatorial candidate Grace Poe benefited from Aquino’s endorsement, jumping to 10th or 11th spot from as low as 28th, according to a poll by the Social Weather Stations survey company that was released April 23. The survey of 1,800 registered voters was conducted April 13-15 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.
A Social Weather Stations poll conducted May 2-3 among 2,400 registered voters showed Aquino’s allies winning three-quarters of the Senate seats up for grabs. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.
The president’s popularity has remained high through the first half of his term, during which his predecessor Gloria Arroyo was arrested on graft charges and the country’s top judge was impeached for illegally concealing his wealth. Aquino said May 8 in the presidential compound in Manila that the bureaus of customs, immigration and corrections will be on his radar after the Senate election.
Since taking office in mid-2010, PNoy or Noynoy, as Aquino is known in the Philippines, defied the Catholic Church with the law providing free contraceptives, and resisted opposition from the tobacco lobby in passing the so-called sin tax on cigarettes and liquor.
The economy expanded 6.6 percent last year, the fastest in Asia after China, and Aquino was rewarded this year for narrowing a record budget deficit when Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s gave the Philippines investment-grade credit scores. Stocks have surged in the wake of the upgrades, with the Philippine Stock Exchange Index (PCOMP) up 25 percent this year. Markets are closed today for the elections.
Aquino said he also plans to implement a peace agreement with Muslim rebels that aims to end a 40-year insurgency in Mindanao. The violence has blocked mining companies from tapping deposits in the mineral-rich region.
The country’s economic expansion masks unemployment and poverty levels that have remained almost unchanged from before Aquino took office. The jobless rate rose to 7.1 percent as of January, among the highest in the Asia-Pacific.
“In spite of all our successes, the fight is not yet over,” Aquino said in a May 10 campaign rally in Manila. “The challenge for us is to strengthen good governance.”
Former President Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in 2001 for corruption and is now an opposition leader, is running for mayor in Manila.
Final results are expected 24 to 48 hours after the polls close at 7 p.m., James Jimenez, the Commission on Elections spokesman, said by phone.
Controlling the Senate “opens the opportunity to do great reforms” for Aquino, said Ramon Casiple, executive director at the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. “No more strings attached, no influence brought about by political debt.”
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