Philippines midterms could strengthen Duterte's hold on Senate

Filipinos cast their votes at a polling precinct in the capital, Manila. The midterm elections are likely a test of President Rodrigo Duterte's popularity.

(CNN)Over 60 million voters are going to the polls across the Philippines for midterm elections on Monday that are being seen as a bellwether for the popularity of President Rodrigo Duterte.

While more than 18,000 government posts are up for grabs, the highest office in the land is not being contested. Nonetheless, the election is widely considered to be a referendum on the brash, plain-spoken leader's three years in office.
Duterte's divisive policies, including his war on drugs, which has seen thousands of people lose their lives in extrajudicial killings, have provoked a chorus of condemnation from human rights groups at home and overseas.
    But opinion polls in the lead-up to the election have been favorable to the president, suggesting many in the country still admire his strongman tactics.
      In early May, Philippine pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS) reported a record high approval rating for the Duterte administration of 72% -- classified as "excellent."
      The high approval rating is likely indicate a smooth path to power for politicians who have aligned themselves with the ruling PDP-Laban party.
      The party's high-profile candidates include Duterte's former special assistant-turned-Senate candidate Bong Go, former Philippines National Police (PNP) chief Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa -- who oversaw much of Duterte's war against drugs -- and Imee Marcos, daughter of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
        Senatorial candidate Imee Marcos   gestures during the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas Bayan (PDP-LABAN) in Manila on May 11, 2019 ahead of the midterm elections.

        High turnout expected

        Half of the country's 24-seat Senate is up for grabs, potentially allowing Duterte to strengthen his support base and push through some of his more controversial policies.
        "All eyes are in the 12 seats of the senate -- it somehow serves as a proxy, a referendum for the administration as the president is not subject to re-election," says Aries Arugay, an Associate Professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
        "Looking at polls leading to the election, it's a possibility that 80% of the candidates that Duterte endorsed might win. This is something that has something to do with his popularity and trust ratings remains high despite what he has done in the past three years."
        The president has indicated his support for the death penalty in the predominantly Catholic country, despite opposition from the Vatican. The Philippines abolished the death penalty in 2006.
        Critics also fear that if Duterte tightens his hold on the Senate, he'll more easily be able to rewrite the constitution, potentially lifting the limit on six-year presidential terms.
        "If he takes full control, then we would really see the complete diminution of check and balances," says Arugay.
        "The Senate is the last bastion of resistance, if he controls a supermajority it will be easy for him to implement an agenda if he so desires."
        Duterte has declared a special non-working holiday in hopes to push up turnout -- which in recent elections has been above 70%.
        Voter Louie Valenzuela, told news agency AFP that he saw graft as a main issue in the election.
        "It's very important to vote because this is for the younger generation who will also get to vote soon, like my children," he said. "Today we will vote for our new leaders and (I am) hoping that this could end corruption."
        Election workers sort lists of voters at a polling precinct in Manila.