A Filipino Trump? "Duterte Harry" Eyes Presidency
A tough-talking mayor leads the polls in the Philippines, which will elect a new president in May. Rodrigo Duterte's message is simple: stop crime and corruption. But some question his methods.
MANILA — When Rodrigo Duterte addresses a rally called "Mad For Change," the crowd goes wild and chants his name. "I can't promise heaven, but I will promise you a comfortable life," the tough-talking mayor of Davao City, the fourth largest city in the Philippines, tells the crowd. "Corruption has to stop. Criminality has to stop."
His no-more-funny-business message has made him the talk of the town and a serious contender in the country's presidential race, which he didn't formally join until November. The election takes place May 9.
Popular figures such as Senator Grace Poe (who was disqualified in December), Vice-President Jejomar Binay and Mar Roxas, a former interior secretary, had dominated the polls. But many voters see Duterte's brand of politics as refreshing, different from the other candidates, who hail from the ranks of the political elite.
While his numbers slipped last month, a November survey by Pulse Asia Research estimated support for Duterte at 34%, eight percentage points higher than his closest rival.
"Being an attorney and being a prosecutor at that, and with all the stories about how he deals with criminals, instead of eroding his charisma, it has enhanced it even more," political analyst Jose Fernandez explains. "Filipinos think maybe we need this kind of president."
Too tough on crime?
Duterte has been mayor of Davao, a city of 2 million people, for 22 years, and has also served as a congressman. He is credited for making Davao the safest city in the country, albeit by controversial means. Human rights groups accuse him of supporting a group of vigilantes who execute criminals and drug pushers. There have been some 1,000 extra-judicial killings of suspected criminals during Duterte's tenure as mayor.
One of the candidate's closest friends, Butch Chase, claims the accusations are all heresay. "He never told me that he ordered the killing of any criminal," says Chase. "There are only small things, like he would say, "If this criminal won't listen to me, I'll warn him and if not, he should fear for his life.""
Many see Duterte's popularity as a product of a breakdown of law and order, and endemic corruption. The mayor's style of swift justice even earned him a telling nickname: Duterte Harry.
During a rally, Duterte says he simply hates criminals. "If you are a criminal, a car-napper a kidnapper, and you are on bail because the evidence against you isn't strong enough, I will also abduct you. I will do whatever you did to your victim," he says.
More recently, some have also begun to refer to him as the "Donald Trump of the Philippines" for his blunt language, and also because he admits to being a womanizer and has a penchant for using expletives in public.
Desperate for change
Duterte's image resonates. The common Filipino voter is desperate for someone who will represent them, says civil society activist and environmentalist Gerthie Anda. "I'd like to echo what a taxi driver told me: "I would rather vote for a guy whose mouth is dirty because he speaks dirty but he has no corruption charges whatsoever, rather than vote for a candidate who goes to church and speaks politely but is linked with corruption,"" Anda explains. "In a sense, he represents the general public."
Unlike other candidates, Duterte also has an image of being incorruptible. Anda says the common Filipino just wants to be safe from crime and live in a corruption-free society, precisely what the Duterte brand offers.
"For them, the crimes, the womanizing, the badmouthing, killingsâ€¦ that can be forgotten as long as basic services are actually implemented," she explains. "The priorities now are basic services. As long as there is no corruption, poverty can be addressed. To them that is enough."
Jaren Atrero, a young professional, plans to vote for Duterte. He believes the mayor can deliver on his promises. "He is a concrete example of true change," says Atrero. "Filipinos are craving for change. He is not a traditional politician. He is really different. If you can see his platforms, very simpleâ€¦ and that's very attainable. I believe he is the one."
But not everyone is impressed. "I don't want him to become president because he has a lot of characteristics that don't fit a true leader," says voter Ken Chan. "I don't like his leadership style that uses force."
Gerthie Anda also sees some red flags, and warns Filipinos against buying into the hype. "On enforcement, that is his strength. But there are still blind areas," she says. "What is good governance for him? How will he address social justice issues or agrarian reform? The land issue is still dominant in this country. What about the use of natural resources? How will he deal with corruption?"