JAKARTA, Indonesia — Ahead of the Philippine’s midterm elections on May 13, Catholic Church leaders in this country issued some subtle pre-vote guidance in their Holy Week and Easter messages.

Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila, probably the country’s best-known clergyman, used his Palm Sunday homily to laud “humble” leaders. Less subtly, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas penned a missive for a local news website that decried an “ignorance” that “has made us a nation that glees in murder” and “votes for incorrigible liars.”

Posting on his Facebook page, Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David drew an analogy between Christ’s passion and the upcoming vote. “Pontius Pilate gave them a chance to vote. It was a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. They elected Barabbas and had Jesus crucified. Will your vote in May be for Jesus, or for Barabbas?” asked Bishop David, who is the vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). At time of writing, the CBCP had not responded to an emailed request for comment.

Bishop David’s question might have sounded cryptic to anyone unfamiliar with local politics. But given that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a prolific and usually profane critic of the Catholic Church, called the bishop a “son of a whore” in a recent tirade, the meaning behind Bishop David’s reference to Barabbas — a “notorious prisoner,” according to the Gospel of St. Matthew and accused of sedition elsewhere in the Bible — becomes clear. 

Most of the candidates in the main midterm senate election race are either enthusiastic supporters of President Duterte or range from being nominally independent to explicitly opposed. These latter candidates look increasingly like they are taking a losing stance as voting day looms.

Bishop David’s election message came after the president — who has said he was sexually abused by a priest when he was a child — marked the start of Holy Week by again excoriating Catholic clergy in the latest in a series of characteristically foul-mouthed broadsides.

“You know what, mother***er, there’s a war. I have declared war,” he said in one recent tirade. “If not, my country will lose. You priests, you won’t do anything … forgiveness, forgiveness, will forgiveness be enough?” Duterte said, referring to his so-called war on drugs.

According to official statistics, 5,176 drug suspects have been killed since Duterte took office in July 2016. Other estimates put the death toll much higher: The Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights suggested as many as 27,000, while other estimates aim as high as 30,000.

 

Issue No. 1: Drugs

In response to allegations that Duterte’s family and associates have in fact benefited from the drug trade, government officials allege a media conspiracy to undermine the president, heightening tensions in advance of the midterm vote.

In March alone, an estimated $90 million worth of drugs were seized by police, showing that despite Duterte’s violent anti-drugs campaign, dealers — the big players, at least — see little risk of a showdown even with law enforcement in the country, adopting a Duterte-mandated take-no-prisoners policy, responsible for thousands of extrajudicial shootings. 

Corpses, sometimes blindfolded and wrists bound, have been left bleeding on the sidewalks of Manila’s narrow and winding slum streets as a warning sign to others.

With respect to the killings, typically police have claimed self-defense in the face of suspects allegedly resisting arrest. Among the 11 senate candidates backed by Duterte, a former chief of police, Ronald de la Rosa, has peppered his campaign speeches with references to his previous role in the grisly anti-drug campaign. 

The country’s clergy are not opposed to the state curbing the drug trade, but to the Duterte administration’s frequently brutal methods. The bishops’ conference head, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, in the south of the country, told media on March 31 that drug peddlers are “dealers of death and darkness.”

“In the news we see not just thousands but billions worth of drugs. They are Satans,” Archbishop Valles said.

 

Anti-Catholic President

But Duterte’s irreverence runs deeper, it seems, than his knee-jerk intemperate reactions to clergy criticizing the drug-related killings. He has mocked the doctrine of the Trinity and the Crucifixion, called God “stupid” and said that bishops who opposed his policies could be robbed or killed.

In 2015, when Duterte was mayor of Davao, he attacked Pope Francis using the same slur as he did with Bishop David (“son of a whore”), apparently frustrated that the Holy Father’s visit to Manila had left him stuck in a traffic jam during the Pope’s visit to the capital.

But Duterte’s slur against the Holy Father did not cost him in the following year’s presidential election. He won easily, and perhaps surprisingly, given that the Philippines is home to the world’s third-largest Catholic population — a shade over 80% of the country’s 106 million people — and the country is known for its sometimes visceral displays of Catholic devotion.

An annual Good Friday commemoration held in Pampanga, a couple of hours’ drive north of Manila, sees devotees nailed to crosses in imitation of the Crucifixion. Every year on Jan. 9, the feast of the Black Nazarene draws millions onto the streets of the capital, a heaving throng all eager to touch the Black Nazarene, a statue of Christ burdened by the cross, as it wends its way along a roughly 4-mile procession route. Papal visits, such as John Paul II’s in 1995 and Francis’ in 2015, have drawn colossal crowds, with estimates of 5 million and 6 million people attending outdoor Masses during these respective papal visits. 

Church leaders, notably Cardinal Jaime Sin, played a pivotal role in the 1986 downfall of Ferdinand Marcos, a U.S.-backed dictator who had political rivals assassinated and who siphoned billions of dollars of public funds for the benefit of his friends and extended family. Marcos’ daughter Imee is among the senate candidates endorsed by Duterte, while his son Ferdinand Jr. narrowly failed in his bid to be elected vice president in the same 2016 elections that saw Duterte take the top job in a landslide win.

 

Presidential Popularity

Despite the president’s attacks on the faith, neither his image nor the electability of his allies have been damaged. A survey conducted by Social Weather Stations at the end of March found that 79% of respondents were “satisfied” with Duterte’s performance as he neared the midpoint of his single six-year term as president. 

“Most Filipinos do not include the Catholic Church hierarchy position in their voting decision,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, a political watchdog group headquartered in Quezon City, Philippines. “There is no Catholic vote except those in the minority who are considered Sarado Katoliko, those who follow faithfully the Church teachings.”

Many of the candidates opposed to Duterte may also have anti-Catholic leanings, as a large share of them are from the stable of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, whose 2012 Reproductive Health Bill was opposed by the Catholic Church leadership on moral and constitutional grounds.

But concerns about these anti-Duterte candidates may not matter after the upcoming election. The latest opinion poll carried out by Pulse Asia, another local survey group, suggests that 10 of the 16 best-placed contenders to win the 12 open senate seats are aligned with Duterte — an outcome that, if realized, would open the door for Duterte to enact significant legislative changes over the next three years and pave the way for a presidential run by his like-minded daughter Sara Duterte, now mayor of Davao, in the next national vote in 2021.

 

Register correspondent Simon Roughneen reports from Asia for various publications.

He filed this report from Jakarta, Indonesia.