If the people of the Philippines were looking to elect a dry technocrat to the role of president then, it’s fair to say, they wouldn’t have opted for political firebrand Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte.
Duterte, who is waiting to be officially declared the president in the country’s elections following the withdrawal of his heavily beaten opponents, said that he accepted the mandate with “extreme humility”. It was an unusually humble, temperate response from a man whose uncompromising and sometimes obscene remarks during the presidential campaign drew sharp criticism from many, inviting comparisons with American presidential hopeful Donald Trump – and even Hitler.
In truth, the man who’s now set to lead this nation of 100 million people for the next six years has not been given to think before he speaks. Going by this imminent victory alone, this hasn’t done the mayor of the southern city of Davao City any harm at all. In November, for instance, he questioned the parentage of Pope Francis; in April, he joked about the gang-rape of a 36-year-old female Australian missionary who was killed during a prison riot in Davao City in 1989.
Yet it’s the 71-year-old’s blunt, unorthodox style that has appeared to win the hearts and minds of the Filipino people – and for the simple reason, too, that he has a long track record of backing up his tough talk with action. As mayor of Davao during three non-consecutive spells since 1988, he acquired the nicknames the Punisher and Duterte Harry for his uncompromising attitude to fighting crime. Before he began as mayor, the city was a hotbed of lawlessness. Today, it stands as one of the archipelago’s safest areas. For the millions who gave their vote in the presidential elections to the qualified lawyer, it’s their hope that he can do the same with a country that, riddled with crime, corruption and high levels of inequality, hasn’t seen the change many citizens crave.
Indeed, for a figure who often expressed his penchant for meeting violence with violence during his campaign speeches, taking on the many criminals of the country’s cities will likely be right up his alley. A World Bank survey in 2013 put the murder rate for the Philippines at the highest in Asia – and one of the highest in the world. With unlicensed firearms and illegal drugs also doing a brisk trade across the country, the republic’s new sheriff-elect served notice of his intent at a campaign rally before his election when he voiced his wish to roll out his no-nonsense approach across every part of this predominantly Roman Catholic country.
“All of you who are into drugs, I will really kill you. I have no patience, I have no middle ground – either you kill me or I will kill you idiots,” he declared.
The man who has dominated the Philippines’ most colourful national election since the toppling of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 was born on March 28, 1945, in Maasin, capital of the Southern Leyte province. His late father was lawyer Vicente G Duterte, who once served as governor of Davao, and his late mother was Soledad Roa, a schoolteacher and civic leader. After finishing school, he attended the Lyceum of the Philippines University in Manila and graduated with a political-science degree in 1968. Afterwards, he studied law, graduating from Manila’s San Beda College in 1972, and passing the bar exam in the same year.
His route to law graduate was far from seamless, however. His formative years were turbulent, and he has suggested that he was indecently assaulted by a priest. Preferring to associate with tearaways as a youngster, Duterte was twice expelled from school. Yet possessed of an intellect, he went from volatile law student – before graduating he claimed to have shot and wounded a fellow scholar who, he said, was picking on him – to a Davao City prosecutor, a job he held from 1977 to 1986. In the law courts, he prosecuted captured communist insurgents, all the while preparing himself to stake a claim in local politics. He did this in 1986, when he became Davao City’s vice-mayor. Two years later, he assumed the role of mayor itself. He secured the mayoralty by a margin of more than 7,000 votes against his rival. He served in this capacity for 10 years before being elected to congress in 1998. In 2001, he again took on the role of Davao mayor, and except for a three-year spell between 2010 to 2013, when his daughter Sara assumed the post, continued to do so up until his recent election as president.
His time in local politics has become the stuff of Filipino legend. In 1995, he burnt the flag of Singapore after a Filipino domestic servant was executed in the country for murder. He also openly scorned the FBI in 2002 for removing an American national from a local hospital after he was injured by an explosion inside his hotel room.
Other tales of his bravado venture into the incredible. Stories of his hands-on attitude to securing law and order include shoving a drug trafficker from a helicopter and beating up a Filipino army soldier. His private life is just as colourful. He remains friends with his first wife even though their marriage was annulled on the grounds of his adultery. He’s currently in a relationship with a 46-year-old nurse – though the father-of-four has boasted of being anything other than faithful.
Yet his conduct as mayor of Davao City, a 1.5 million-plus populated sprawling metropolis on the island of Mindanao, remains his biggest claim-to-fame. Or more specifically, how he decisively turned the city from a crime-ridden den of iniquity to an apparent bastion of peace and harmony. While many Filipino people have lapped up his challenge to all of the country’s criminals – “I do not want to commit a crime, but if by chance, God will place me there, you all better watch out, I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there” – human-rights activists have squirmed. They have accused him of using “death squads” to tackle Davao’s violence – a charge that the president-elect appeared to confirm last year during a TV show. “Me? They are saying that I’m part of a death squad? True, that’s true.” He may have later backtracked on this admission, but critics remain unconvinced.
For his many supporters, Duterte exudes the kind of power and control needed to succeed in the rough and tumble of his country’s politics. As a politician who shoots from the hip, he also speaks their language.
"He has been a great mayor for the city, and he truly is a man of the people," one Davao City resident told The Telegraph earlier this week. "It's only the lawbreakers who need to worry about him."
But even in the city of his success, not everybody sees Duterte, who has personally participated in armed police raids, as a hero. Speaking to Reuters last month, a 62-year-old woman who lost four sons to violence in Davao between 2001 and 2007 lamented the possibility of a Duterte presidency. She claims he’s responsible for their deaths by way of extrajudicial killings. “When I see posters of him, I see the devil – I pray he won’t win,” she said.
Outgoing president Benigno Aquino said that voting for Duterte “carries dangers similar to Hitler”, and has warned that his presidency could result in a dictatorship. Yet many observers have pointed out a more contemporary comparison with Trump – an association Duterte’s aides have apparently encouraged. Quotes testifying to this assertion abound. Take Trump’s accusations against Mexico: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” And compare that to Duterte: “Forget the laws on human rights … You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you.” Both figures have run populist campaigns; both have incurred the wrath of the international community.
Duterte, who toured the streets of Davao incognito by taxi with a gun by his side hoping to confront criminals first-hand, will have an in-tray full of issues when he takes up office in the country’s capital, Manila. On the global-affairs front, this includes a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. On matters more domestic, other than confronting crime and corruption, he will have to deal with a state that has experienced solid economic growth over recent years, but which is fraught with working-class discontent.
When his victory seemed assured, Duterte drove to his parent’s graveside at 3am. He broke down and wept, saying: “Help me Mum, I’m just a nobody.” Proof, perhaps, that the new strongman of the Philippines has a heart. Yet any foe looking to challenge the country’s 16th president would be a sorry fool to confuse that with weakness.
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