Aquino Poised to Win Senate as Philippines Counts Votes

Philippine President Benigno Aquino appeared set to win control of the 24-member Senate with vote counting under way in legislative elections, a result that would bolster his plans for an expanded anti-corruption drive.

Nine Senate candidates backed by Aquino are leading among the 12 seats up for grabs with about 54 percent of precincts reporting, according to an unofficial count posted on the website of Rappler, which is authorized by the Commission on Elections to collect results. They would join four Aquino allies currently in the Senate whose terms expire in 2016, giving him an effective majority in the upper house.

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. The 53-year-old leader wants a tighter grip on the Senate to push for stronger anti-graft measures, speedier trials and a more efficient procurement system.

“Stronger control of Congress gives Aquino a better chance of pushing for his legislative agenda for the rest of his term,” Paul Joseph Garcia, who helps manage the equivalent of $18 billion at BPI Asset Management Inc. in Manila, said by phone. “The outcome of the elections will be a validation of the president’s policy reforms and governance that has boosted investor confidence.”

Stocks Gain

The Philippine Stock Exchange Composite Index, which has risen 26 percent this year, gained 0.6 percent as of the midday break, set for a record close. The peso fell 0.1 percent.

The election for half of the Senate, members of the House of Representatives and other local officials went smoothly, with electronic voting machines surpassing expectations, Commission on Elections Chairman Sixto Brillantes told reporters in Manila after polls closed. Senate winners will be proclaimed by 7 p.m. tomorrow, he said today.

Former President Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in 2001 and spent six years in prison on corruption charges, was proclaimed Manila mayor, according to ABS-CBN News.

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.

Aquino Lead

Aquino’s allies held leads over the 13th Senate candidate by margins ranging from 800,000 votes to five million votes, according to raw ballot tallies on Rappler. Voters can cast ballots for as many as 12 candidates, and the top 12 vote-getters nationwide win Senate seats.

Grace Poe, an Aquino ally running for Senate, was leading in the total vote count, according to Rappler. Aquino’s candidates held nine of the top 10 spots.

Even without overt Senate support during his first three years in office, Aquino managed to win support for key bills such as raising liquor taxes and providing free contraception. Like his mother Corazon, who won 22 of the 24 Senate seats for her administration after becoming president in 1986, Aquino used his popularity to help his allies on the campaign trail.

The president’s approval rating rose 4 percentage points to 72 percent in March, polling body Pulse Asia Inc. said last month. It 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.

Post-Election Agenda

Aquino said in last week’s interview that the bureaus of customs, immigration and corrections will be on his radar after the Senate election.

“We have to fine-tune the civil service system also, so you don’t have an attitude that once you are granted civil service, it is practically impossible for you to be disciplined,” Aquino said.

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.

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, according to government data released in March, among the highest in the Asia-Pacific.

‘Good Momentum’

“A peaceful election is all that’s required for the good momentum the Philippines is experiencing to continue,” said Rico Gomez, who helps manage $2.8 billion at Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. in Manila. “There is too much good momentum in the economy that it will be foolish to turn the cart.”

Election-related violence occurred on the southern island of Mindanao, where seven people were killed and 11 injured in two separate incidents, according to the police and military. Aquino is negotiating a peace agreement with Muslim rebels to end a 40-year insurgency in Mindanao and allow mining companies to tap deposits in the mineral-rich region.

Power failures in provinces including Batangas and Cavite disrupted voting, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla said. At least 96 electronic counting machines malfunctioned, ABS-CBN News reported, citing election director Teofisto Elnas.

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