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Filipinos head to polls with eyes on 2016

Hotly contested local elections could tip the balance in 2016 presidential race.

Last Modified: 28 Oct 2013 09:24
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More than 800,000 candidates are running in local polls with national repercussions [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

Manila, Philippines - At 79, Pablo Olivarez has seen his glory days. The medical doctor built his own hospital and school, and was elected mayor of a Manila suburb in the 1990s.

Although a veteran of many losing electoral campaigns - including three times to a TV comedian - his political stock has recovered. Despite difficulty walking and standing for extended periods, Olivarez has refused to retire from politics. 

On Monday, he ran for re-election as chairman of his village or barangay, the basic administrative unit in the Philippines' democratic structure. Throughout the Philippines, more than 54 million voters headed to the polls to choose local leaders, running for 42,028 wards nationwide.

While officially "non-partisan", pundits predict that whichever major parties get the most allies elected will have the upper hand in the 2016 presidential contest. That could turn Olivarez and local leaders like him into potential kingmakers.

As "little mayor" of his ward, Olivarez has promised "unmatched service" to his 61,000 constituents. In Barangay San Dionisio, that catchphrase has extra significance as Olivarez is running unopposed. For insurance, his teenage daughter from his second wife is also vying to be his deputy. 

"National candidates need grassroots support to win in the next election, so they want to make sure that their allies win," said James Jimenez, spokesman of the election regulatory agency.

Incidents of violence are higher this year compared to the previous barangay election.

- James Jimenez, election regulatory agency spokesman

For that same reason, the system has been criticised as a tool for political patronage, and a breeding ground of political dynasties  and corruption.

Aside from their political clout, ward captains have control over their budgets, which now total $1.37bn annually, apportioned according to the ward's population and tax revenues.

Intensified violence

Because of the post's many perks, competition has been fierce - and often violent.

Since the campaign season started on October 18, at least 16 people have been killed and 17 wounded in politically motivated attacks. Even before the 10-day election period, the national police had already reported at least 47 ward chiefs and 49 deputies killed from January 2013 to the end of September.

On September 17, Batangas province ward chairman Nemensio Atasan was walking towards his office when he was shot dead by a gunman on a motorcycle. The day before, Arnulfo Madriaga, another ward chairman, was killed in the northern Philippine province of Abra. Last week, an assassin's bullet narrowly missed ward chairman Totong Legaspi, but killed his 20-year-old niece.  

"Incidents of violence are higher this year compared to the previous barangay election," Jimenez said. "There's a lot of tension because of the proximity of the candidates in the local level. Often, it becomes personal."

Historically, violence has dominated local Philippine elections. In 2009, 58 people, including 34 journalists covering a campaign, were killed in Maguindanao province in the southern Mindanao region.

The massacre was blamed on the powerful Ampatuan clan, which had long dominated the local political scene. The clan fiercely denied any involvement in the killings, and prosecutions in the case are ongoing.

Grace Padaca understood the importance of the ward chiefs when she became governor of Isabela province in 2004. She was taking on a political dynasty that ruled the province for four decades, and none of the area mayors were willing to support her. 

Local elections could affect the 2016 presidential vote [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

"So I reached out directly to the barangay chairmen, and partnered with them for basic services," said Padaca, now a national election commissioner.

"They were actually my showcase of how I can work with my political opponents, because they were really not for me. Barangays are the first image of the people, of what government is. The first government official that they know, and who can be closest to them, are the officials in the barangays."

Despite her efforts, Padaca was defeated in her re-election bid, and the dynasty that ruled her province has returned to power. 

Still, Padaca said barangays can do a lot of good in the hands of "good people". As an election commissioner, her goal now is to push for electoral reforms, such as implementing rules isolating ward leaders from the undue influence of political parties.

National implications

On the last day of campaigning on Saturday, local candidates competed for the public's attention, hiring marching bands and lighting fireworks. As in campaigns past, many of the ward candidates danced and sang to entertain voters, turning rallies into festivals instead of serious political gatherings.

With more than 800,000 local candidates running, campaigns took on a carnival atmosphere.

Based on the political current of these barangay elections, Maria Lourdes Tiquia, a political strategist, predicted that President Benigno Aquino III's Liberal Party and Vice President Jejomar Binay's opposition coalition will slug it out in 2016. Many say Binay will run for president. Meanwhile, the constitution bars Aquino from running for a second term.

"The vice president has shown his organisational strengths in 2010, and the election of his daughter, using just brand recall and his organisation," Tiquia told Al Jazeera, referring to Binay's daughter Nancy, a political newcomer who was elected senator last May.

Leaders of barangays wield political and economic clout [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

Aquino's still unnamed party nominee could also wrest the presidency, Tiquia said, based on the power of incumbency, the number of administration senators who won during mid-term polls, and its cash-transfer programme to poor families in many low-income barangays.

Compared to the last presidential election in 2010, two million more voters have been registered, which could be crucial to winning a close race, according to Padaca, the election commissioner.

Tiquia said future presidential candidates can learn a lot from local leaders such as ward chairmen.

"Philippine politics is very personal and voters rely much on their barangays for service," she said. "Voters should be able to feel and see you at their level."

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