Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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Vote campaign starts amid violence, virus fears

MANILA, PHILIPPINES  (AP) – Candidates for Philippine congressional seats and thousands of smaller races started campaigning yesterday with police watching closely due to past violence and to enforce a pandemic ban on handshakes, hugging and tightly packed crowds that are a hallmark of the country’s often circus-like campaigns.

Campaigning for the presidency and other high-profile races began last month. Nearly 66 million Filipinos in the country and over 1.6 million abroad have registered to vote in the May 9 elections for over 18,000 local government and congressional posts.

Social media has become a key battleground for votes after two years of lockdowns and home quarantine restrictions in a Southeast Asian country that was hit hard by coronavirus outbreaks. The last alarming spike occurred in January before easing with an intensified vaccination campaign. Many fear election disinformation could worsen in a country regarded as one of the world’s top Internet users.

In suburban Marikina city, a mayoral candidate walked from house to house under the intense summer heat and talked to residents as followers trailed him, including one who banged a snare drum to draw attention. In Quezon city, red and white confetti rained down on a stage, as the mayor, who is seeking re-election, and her allies held and raised each other’s hands in a show of unity. She later approached supporters, some of whom grabbed her hands.

Such fiesta-like scenes were replicated in most of the country.

Confetti drops as Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte and her party launch their campaign in Quezon City, Philippines. PHOTO: AP

Some candidates openly flouted elections coronavirus regulations, campaigning in public without the required face masks, shaking hands and huddling close to supporters seeking selfies.

Elections Commissioner George Garcia warned candidates not to violate coronavirus restrictions. “While we have eased restrictions, it doesn’t mean there can be super-spreader events,” he said in a news conference on Thursday.

A more serious concern has been elections violence. Local elections have been marred in the past by bloody feuds and accusations of cheating, especially in rural regions with weak law enforcement and a proliferation of unlicensed firearms and private armies.

Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly warned he would deploy the military if candidates resort to violence and fraud.

“Nobody wants trouble, nobody wants cheating,” he said in a speech in September in south Mindanao region, where many elections security hotspots have been identified by the police.

“The military is the guardian of our country and I could call them anytime to see to it that people are protected and election’s freely, orderly exercised,” said Duterte, who has long been condemned himself for the thousands of killings of mostly petty suspects in his bloody crackdown against illegal drugs.

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