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Philippines' Duterte Remains Popular Ahead Of Midterm Elections


The Philippines stages midterm elections on Monday. More than 18,000 national and local positions are up for grabs.


SHAPIRO: That sound, from a rally in the south of the country. Half the Senate and all the House of Representatives are on the ballot in what has been a lively campaign lasting six weeks. While the President Rodrigo Duterte is not on the ballot, he has a major stake in the outcome. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from Manila. Hi, Julie.


SHAPIRO: Lay the scene for us. What have these last six weeks been like in the Philippines?

MCCARTHY: Well, it's very lively. They're out on the streets. They're campaigning. Now, that was from candidates on the slate that President Duterte supports. They were especially long (laughter) on entertainment in this campaign. A little short on the substance, long on lots of singing and dancing. And this group is a dance troupe. They have the money, and they also have the backing - more to the point of President Duterte, who really was a draw at the rallies.

SHAPIRO: Duterte has gotten a lot of international attention and condemnation for the drug war that he's been waging in the country. If this is a referendum on his leadership, what has he been saying?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, he's really used it as a platform to talk about his agenda. You know? And he rarely misses a point to say if you are into illegal drugs, you better get out, or you will be killed. He's very casual, but he's caustic at the same time. And the crowds eat it up. And of course, he also slips in ridicule of the opposition. Let's give a listen to this.


PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: He's here knocking the opposition slate - a veteran poverty lawyer, an economist, a former solicitor general - saying their names sound like girls. Now, on the flip side of this, many of the candidates that Duterte supports know very little about legislating. And this race is really all about the Philippine Senate.

SHAPIRO: Why? What is at stake in the Senate here?

MCCARTHY: Well, the senators really are an independent bunch. On the other hand, the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives are said to be under Duterte's sway. And if his allies do win the 12 seats that are up or many of them, he effectively controls the Senate, and he expands his grip on power. Now, critics worry this could mean bloodier drug wars, tighter ties with China. And one young voter, Walter Tamayo, told us, look; having an opposition in the Senate is vital to democracy. He called it a referendum on Duterte. And here he is.

WALTER TAMAYO: We can't have senators who just keep saying yes to the administration through the president. We need a voice in the Senate who will say that we've had enough of the killings. No, we had enough of a president that keeps saying yes to Chinese intrusions in our country. We had enough of that.

MCCARTHY: You know, Ari, the polls show, on the other hand, that none of the opposition candidates is pushing through enough to win a Senate seat.

SHAPIRO: Why is it so hard for the opposition to gain traction?

MCCARTHY: Well, according to the polls, the newest survey, Duterte has an 81 percent approval rating. Among other things, people feel safe with his drug war. They feel safer. Now, most people don't see it through the prism of human rights, despite upwards of 5,000 Filipinos, mostly poor, being killed. They see it as a law-and-order measure. And then of course, the opposition doesn't come from rich or fabled families, although they are in this race. You have the Marcos' back in, running for a Senate seat, the daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Which really tells us something about the Philippines, that power rarely changes hands in this country.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy joining us from Manila in the Philippines. Thank you.

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.