The Philippine election campaign begins amid violence and virus fears

Candidates for Philippine congressional seats and thousands of smaller races began campaigning on Friday, with police watching closely due to past violence and enforcing a pandemic ban on handshakes, hugs and tightly packed crowds that are a hallmark of the country’s often circus-like campaigning.

The campaign for the presidency and other high-profile races began last month. Nearly 66 million Filipinos domestically and more than 1.6 million overseas have registered to vote for more than 18,000 local government and congressional posts in the May 9 elections.

Social media has become a major battleground for voices after two years of lockdowns and quarantine restrictions in a Southeast Asian country hit hard by coronavirus outbreaks. The last alarming spike occurred in January before it leveled off with an intensified vaccination campaign. Many fear election disinformation could be getting worse in a country considered to be one of the world’s top internet users.

In the capital, Manila, a mayoral candidate kicked off her candidacy by waving and dancing from a pickup truck that weaved through a crowded public market area, belting out her campaign jingle as crowds cheered from the sidewalks and snapped photos on their cellphones. Their mascot waved to the crowd from another truck in a scene shown live on Facebook.

In the suburb of Marikina, in the intense summer heat, a mayoral candidate went from house to house speaking to residents while he was followed by supporters, including one who banged a snare drum to attract attention. Such fiesta-like scenes were repeated across most of the country.

Some candidates openly flouted coronavirus election rules, campaigned in public without the required face masks, shook hands and crowded close to supporters seeking selfies.

Election Commissioner George Garcia warned candidates against violating coronavirus restrictions. “Even though we’ve eased restrictions, that doesn’t mean there can be super spreader events,” he said in a press conference on Thursday.

With limited staff, the commission struggles to enforce its campaign regulations, such as B. posting campaign posters in unauthorized areas. “Don’t waste your posters in public places. They just get mined,” Garcia said.

A more serious concern was electoral violence. Local elections have historically been marred by bloody feuds and allegations of fraud, particularly in rural areas with weak law enforcement and a proliferation of unlicensed firearms and private armies.

Last December, armed motorcyclists killed a mayor and wounded another in a brazen attack in the southern city of Zamboanga. The attackers escaped. The victims were reportedly planning to stand for re-election in the May elections, and investigators said at the time they were checking whether this was linked to political rivalries.

In 2009, heavily armed men employed by the family of then-governor of southern Maguindanao province massacred 58 people, including journalists, in an open attack on a convoy of a rival political clan that shocked the world.

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

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

“The military is the guardian of our country and I could call on them anytime to make sure the people are safe and the elections are free and orderly,” said Duterte, who has long himself been responsible for the thousands of murders of mostly insignificant people Suspects were convicted of his bloody crackdown on illegal drugs.

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