Thousands of security forces on alert ahead of Philippines elections

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Manila (AFP) – More than 60,000 security forces in the Philippines were on high alert on Sunday to protect ballots and polling stations on the eve of the presidential election, after police said four people were killed in an outbreak of violence.

Elections are a traditionally volatile time in a country with lax gun laws and a violent political culture, but national police say this season has been relatively peaceful.

In one of the worst incidents, four people were killed on Saturday in a shootout between armed supporters of rival mayors in the town of Magsingal, in the northern province of Ilocos Sur, said police spokesman Brigadier -General Roderick Alba. Four others were injured.

Police in the northern province of Nueva Ecija also arrested two dozen people and seized weapons, including five M-16 rifles, a 12-gauge shotgun and 15 handguns, following a shootout between bodyguards of two candidates for mayor of General Tinio.

Five people were injured in the incident, which also left the same number of sport utility vehicles riddled with bullets, Alba said.

More than 18,000 positions, from president to city councilor, are up for election.

The son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos looks poised to win the presidential election by a landslide, bringing the clan back to the pinnacle of political power.

Rights groups, Catholic church leaders and opponents see the election as a watershed moment for the country’s democracy, amid fears Marcos Junior could rule with a heavy fist.

Police, armed forces and coast guard personnel deployed across the archipelago to help secure polling stations and ballot papers, escort election officials and guard checkpoints.

The security deployment involves about 48,000 troops and 16,000 police, officials said.

“Based on our planning…we are confident that we will have a safe and orderly election,” armed forces spokesman Colonel Ramon Zagala said.

There have been 16 “validated election-related incidents” since Jan. 9, including four shootings and a “lightweight illegal detention”, Alba said.

This compares to 133 incidents in the 2016 presidential elections and 60 in the 2019 midterm elections.

Police spokeswoman Colonel Jean Fajardo attributed the sharp decline to an increased security presence, as well as military and police operations targeting “bulk firearms” and private armed groups.

The electoral commission largely bans the carrying of weapons during the election period which lasts until June 8.

‘To stay awake’

Experts say the explosion of social media, which has made it easier to report incidents, and the growing dominance of political dynasties, which stifle electoral competition, have helped dampen election violence.

In the country’s deadliest incident of political violence on record, 58 people were massacred in 2009 when gunmen allegedly belonging to a local warlord in the southern Philippines attacked a group of people to prevent a rival to submit his candidacy for the elections.

Thirty-two of the victims were journalists covering the contest, making it the deadliest attack on media workers on record.

Filipino presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the former dictator’s son, looks set to win in a landslide victory JAM STA ROSA AFP

The introduction of electronic voting in 2010 made the widespread vote rigging that has historically plagued elections in the Philippines more difficult.

But Marcos Jr, who still insists he was cheated in the 2016 vice-presidential race, warned of voter fraud in those polls and urged his supporters to be vigilant.

“We will win as long as you stay awake on Monday so there is no more tragedy,” Marcos Jr told hundreds of thousands of fans at his final campaign rally on Saturday.

“A lot of unwanted things happen if we stop paying attention to them.”

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