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Millions Of Voters Turn Out For Philippines' Midterm Elections


This is the sound of a polling place, the sound of an election where a country's leader is not on the ballot but it is very much a referendum on his vision and policies. We're going now to the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte has led a violent war on drugs that has made him popular among some, but it has also been deadly. NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Manila. Hi, Julie.


GREENE: So this is not a presidential election. I mean, a lot of other offices are up for grabs, like half the seats in the Senate? Right? So how is Duterte defining this?

MCCARTHY: Well, he's defining it because he dominates the political landscape. And he would like to strengthen that domination. That's why the Senate is so crucial. If his endorsed slate of candidates wins all 12 seats up for grabs, he would control the upper house, and it would no longer be a check on him. The lower house is already with him. And the idea of Duterte having no legislative checks made this a polarizing election. For the opposition, the question is - will his presidency be more dangerous than it has already been?

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, you speak about dangerous and this drug war, which has been so violent. So where do we think people in this country stand? What are the chances of him, you know, keeping a hold on the Senate and on the country or the chance of the opposition breaking?

MCCARTHY: Well, first of all, to look at how things could get more dangerous, there's alarm over the prospect of a bloodier war on drugs. Remember; in Duterte's first few years, by official count, police operations killed more than 5,000 Filipinos, mostly poor people. And rights groups say the number is much higher. But President Duterte doubled down on the drug war during the campaign. And for anyone in the illegal drug trade, his message couldn't have been clearer. Here he is addressing a rally outside Manila.


PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: If you destroy my country and you force my children to eat drugs, I will kill you.


MCCARTHY: I will kill you. He adds, I don't care if you're a police official, a governor or a congressman; I will finish you. Now, voters living in drug-infested neighborhoods streamed out of the polls today, telling me they wholly endorse that. Forty-six-year-old Annie Gobotero (ph) says she's hurt by the president's vulgarity about women, his maligning of the Catholic Church, but she's with him on the drug war.

ANNIE GOBOTERO: (Through translator) The neighborhood's not clean up totally. But you can walk in. You don't get held up, and you can walk freely in the neighborhood. So it's really a big change.

MCCARTHY: She says she voted for Duterte's candidates in the Senate today because she wants continuity in the drug war. And pollsters will tell you Duterte's tough law and order is why he has a 71% approval rating.

GREENE: Well, just listening to that voice there from Annie Gobotero - I mean, if she's willing to put aside other concerns she has because she's so supportive of this drug war and feels like it's making her country safer, how does the opposition fight back against that?

GOBOTERO: It's an uphill battle. The president's threat to finish any public official involved in drugs has intimidated a lot of them. They're afraid of being tagged by Duterte with drug allegations that can be deadly. They wanted to stay in the government's good graces, and the opposition says they stayed away from them. Chel Diokno is an opposition Senate candidate, and here's how he described the challenge.

CHEL DIOKNO: You have the use of fear. You have the use of violence and the use of lies, or fake news. And those are used in combination to keep the people in check and to silence the opposition.

GREENE: OK. The voice there of the opposition in the election in the Philippines, which NPR's Julie McCarthy is covering from Manila. Julie, thanks so much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.

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