The election of 12 new senators was proclaimed on May 22 by the Philippines electoral commission (COMELEC) following mid-term elections on May 13. All were from the grouping endorsed by authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte is best known internationally for his “war on drugs”. In reality this is a war on the country's poor majority, a turf war by drug traffickers (who are Duterte's cronies) and a human rights catastrophe that has killed thousands — some estimate more than 20,000.
The unlikely clean sweep by his candidates for the Senate is just part of the evidence of electoral fraud and reflects Duterte's authoritarianism and contempt for the rule of law.
Sonny Melencio, chairperson of the socialist Partido Lakas ng Masa (Party of the Labouring Masses, PLM) spoke to Green Left Weekly on May 21 about the left’s response to the elections and allegations of electoral fraud.
One aspect of the campaigns — both for the elections and against Duterte's theft of them — has been increased cooperation between the PLM and other left-wing tendencies, in particular the Makabayan bloc. Historically their relationship has sometimes been fraught.
Melencio explained that fraud occurred in the electronic transmission of votes from the precincts to the COMELEC (Philippines electoral commission). “Results were sent to the COMELEC server and stopped there for more than seven hours, which means they had all that time to tamper with the results. Clearly having no opposition candidates elected to the Senate is very suspicious.
“The electronic transmission of votes was managed by a server agency called TIM — Total Information Management — which we found out is owned by Duterte's crony Dennis Uy, a businessman from Davao who supported Duterte and acquired several corporations and establishments after Duterte took over in 2016.
“Dennis Uy is denying that his company has cheated, but basically he has the capacity to do it because his company is in control of the servers and his people control the electronic voting machines.
“There was also the breakdown of thousands of vote counting machines, to an extent that has never happened since their introduction in 2010.
Voters had to leave the polling station and leave their ballot with polling officials to feed it into the machine. There are videos on social media of tampering with the ballots, like the marking of a number of ballots by just a few people
“That is one major aspect of the cheating and fraud. The second one is the massive vote buying,” Melencio said. “Bong Go — a Senate candidate backed by Duterte and a close aide from when Duterte became Mayor of Davao — has net assets of a little over 10 million pesos, but he officially spent 44 million pesos during his campaign.”
Bong Go's relationship with the president is not just political. He is a financial beneficiary of the “war on drugs” in a way that highlights its violent hypocrisy. “This came up in a video by one of those involved in criminal drug syndicates,” Melencio said. “Bong Go has been part of a drug syndicate with Duterte for quite a long time, he is basically the alter ego of Duterte in the illegal drug trade and many other criminal syndicates.
“Duterte himself has stated that vote buying is the norm in elections in the Philippines. The administration has been in the best position to do this because it has all the money. If you include drug money, a really big amount of money has circulated during the election.
The partylists (tickets) were also badly affected by the electoral fraud, explained Melencio. “Partylists have had the number of votes in this election slashed to a third of what they usually get.”
Partylists are three-candidate tickets that contest the 55 seats in the lower house supposedly reserved for marginalised sectors. They are elected by a complicated system of proportional representation and are where the left has traditionally won most representation. However, the “trapos” — traditional politicians from entrenched political dynasties — have long used “bogus” party lists to allow their candidates to predominate. Duterte has taken this to a new level.
“The PLM’s votes don’t reflect our base and the networks we have built through this election,” Melencio explained. “We were on target to get 300,000 or more, but we got 10% of that. Everyone is complaining. The other left-wing partylist organisations, which usually make it into the lower house, like Akbayan, Anakpawis and others, all lost votes. We think this was an operation against the left.
“Now, you have pro-Duterte partylists that have made it. Number one is ACT-CIS, which supports Duterte’s drug war and is composed of the Tulfo brothers, who have been involved in graft and corruption. Ben Tulfo made 60 million pesos through the connections of their sister, Wanda Teo, who was the secretary for tourism. That is why they spent a massive amount of money in the elections.
“It is the same with other party lists like the Duterte Youth. There is a campaign by the Kabataan Partylist, the youth group with the Makabayan bloc, against the Duterte Youth, because it seems that the Duterte Youth will be representing the youth in Congress and it is like the fascist Hitler Youth.
“Only a few left partylists have survived, as the partylist representation has now been taken over by pro-Duterte groups.”
“The Friday after the elections, there were the 'Black Friday' protests. PLM were there, with Kabataan, Makabayan, Ang Nars and other progressive partylists [along with] Akbayan in a separate grouping and some groups supporting the main Senate opposition slate — Otso Diretso . They were united in a call to stop the proclamation of the so-called winning senators and winning partylists until the question of fraud has been settled fully.
“Others have actually compared it to the 1978 elections during the time of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when there was an election to the Batasang Pambansa, the interim parliament. In that election the opposition got zero seats, too.
“People reacted by undertaking a ‘noise barrage’ in Metro Manila for a few days. We will be organising these types of activities once we manage to firm up the networks we have right now opposing the electoral fraud.”
Melencio said that, based on what the PLM's election campaign had achieved, “we can already consider ourselves winners.
“Through these elections we have managed to revive organisations not only in Metro Manila but in different regions. Our comrades really worked hard to make sure we revived organisations and expanded. We have expanded our base in that way.
“Laban ng Masa [a left-leaning coalition opposing Duterte's authoritarianism led by well known environmentalist Waldon Bello] endorsed PLM as its partylist and also Leody de Guzman, who we ran as PLM Senate candidate.
“Laban ng Masa organisations opened up their networks for us to campaign in, including their rural networks, so we could go to the rural areas and campaign among farmers and agricultural workers, which are not part of our main base. We are heavily centred in the urban areas. Katarungan, which is part of Laban ng Masa, helped us do that,” said Melencio.
De Guzman is chairperson of the BMP (Solidarity of Filipino Workers) trade union federation. He ran as part of Labor Win, a coalition of labour leaders. Other Labor Win candidates were Ernie Arellano, from the National Confederation of Labor (NCL), Sonny Matula and Allan Montaño from the Federation of Free Workers (FFW) and Neri Colmenares representing the Makabayan-affiliated KMU (May First Labour Movement)
“It reflects the unity of several trade union groups: BMP, NCL, FFW, KMU and the other trade union groups supporting it. Leody got more votes than PLM’s Partylist because Labor Win and Neri helped him reach out to several sectors, including the youth,” Melencio said.
“Actually, our relationship with the Makabayan bloc is growing strong. We didn't expect this. During the campaign it looked like Neri and Leody were representing the left in the Senate coalition. The youth base of Makabayan supported it, and were excited to see a real worker in the Senate election.”
De Guzman's background is as an industrial worker, while other Labor Win candidates are labour lawyers. “I can see the level of support that Leody gained as a fighting worker leader — which was a slogan we used [in the campaign]. There has been no worker Senator since the Senate was formed, but workers, including the unemployed, are 42 million people, out of 50 million voters,” Melencio said.
Melencio explained that the campaign against electoral fraud is being led by the Makabyan bloc and the youth in the Kabataan Partylist. At the press conference held after the Black Friday protest, the Kabataan Partylist along with the PLM reaffirmed the need to continue the campaign.
An 'entertainment campaign'
In contrast to left-wing candidates campaigning throughout the country explaining their ideas and policies, the pro-Duterte candidates conducted what Melencio called “an entertainment campaign”.
“They did not present any program at all. One of the campaign events we spoke at was organised by an urban poor group … where we spoke and presented our program. They were hoping for the government to help them with their community's issues, so they also invited Bong Go. He didn't attend, but sent a singer [intead] and while he was singing, Bong Go's people started throwing T-shirts to the crowd. That is the kind of campaign they had: singing and throwing gifts.”
Melencio warned that the stolen elections were part of Duterte's plan to entrench his rule. “There is a limit on the term of office, which means under the constitution Duterte should be leaving by 2022. But if they change the constitution before then, the term of office will be extended.
“With 12 new Senate members who are all pro-Duterte and [with a] partylist representation that is also dominated by pro-Duterte groups, Duterte will be able to ram through his project of changing the constitution, and continuing with his 'war on drugs' and all his other projects — for the benefit of himself, his cronies and foreign corporations. They are opening up the economy to mining and financial interests from China, the United States and Europe by doing away with the economic restrictions in the constitution.
“This is all [happening] in alliance with other right-wing groups in the Philippines, starting with the Marcos dynasty and with the warlords in the provinces. The war on drugs will intensify and martial law in Mindanao will continue.
"This is also to ensure that there will be no retribution against Duterte [following] charges [against him] filed at the International Court of Justice. He will ensure he will not end up like former presidents Erap Estrada — who was jailed after he was impeached — and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was charged under the next administration. The only way Duterte can stop that is to extend his rule and the rule of his ‘alter ego’ Bong Go and his other supporters.”
A long fight
The left, Melencio said, needs to be prepared for “really quite a long fight” now that it has been essentially excluded from parliament. “Right now, since we've lost the arena of struggle in parliament we need to focus on how to develop it in the community, factory and [at] street level.
“The campaigns will go on against contractualisation. We will not be able to change the laws, but what we can do is shift the struggle to the factories … and develop a strike movement … because this is the only way we can defeat the system and have the workers regularised. With Labor Win, we have to sit down with the different organisations. There might be different views on how to fight contractualisation but it’s easy to do joint events like rallies. A strike movement is the proper way to go but it has to be developed: we're not yet there.
“There's a number of projects that were promoted by Labor Win during the campaign that includes [a campaign for] higher wages, a national minimum wage (the minimum wage is different in different regions) and for workers' insurance.
“It's not going to be an electoral agenda, but an agenda of the trade unions and of fighting in the streets.
“And it's the same with the urban poor. We will go back and tell them we cannot win anything through Congress, because we don't have representatives there, we have to go back to the parliament of the streets.
“Apart from these sectoral fights, we have to prepare for the next fight, which will be against ‘Cha-Cha’ [‘Change Charter’ — Duterte's constitutional change project] and against trapo-led federalism.”
In the wake of the stolen elections, the PLM will be focussing on consolidation. “We saw during the campaign that we don't have enough cadres. We need more people who can explain the program and organise the base: our supporters who are ready to join us but we don't have people who can set up the machinery for them to join,” Melencio said.
“One of the projects we are talking about is setting up a socialist school, so we can give more time to theoretical education and raising the level of ideological awareness among our members.
“The level of unemployment in our base is really extreme. At election assemblies of 100 people, I would ask: how many of you are working in regular jobs? One, two or three people would put their hands up. This is why vote buying works: people are economically desperate and the only way to survive is to do whatever you can, and this includes selling your vote. That's why we need cadres who can explain why this is not the way.”