MANILA // Nicknamed “Duterte Harry” after a Clint Eastwood character with little regard for rules, the Philippine city mayor casually threatens to shoot criminals, hang them with clothes line or drown them in Manila Bay. His expletives have sideswiped even the deeply revered pope.
Despite such brazen talk, Rodrigo Duterte has emerged as a top contender in presidential elections on May 9, in an impressive political rise likened to Donald Trump’s. The tough-talking mayor finds the comparison offensive and draws the line.
“Donald Trump is a bigot, I am not,” Mr Duterte said, referring to Mr Trump’s proposals to ban Muslims entering the US and erect a wall along the Mexican border.
Mr Duterte, 70, built a political name with his iron-fisted approach to fighting crime in southern Davao city, where he has served as mayor for 22 years. He has been credited for turning the vast port region of about 1.5 million people from a Marxist insurgency-wracked murder capital in the 1980s to one of a few Philippine cities with a reputation for law and order and economic vibrancy.
A lawyer, former government prosecutor and congressman, Mr Duterte is the son of a former Davao provincial governor who grew up in a middle-class family that valued integrity. He has a penchant for mischief and recalls his mother, a school teacher, often punished him for misconduct by ordering him to kneel with hands extended sideways in front of a statue of Jesus Christ. He was once kicked out of high school for brawling.
In Davao, Mr Duterte has patrolled streets at night on a Harley Davidson and at times driven a taxi to try to catch robbers preying on drivers. He banned smoking and reportedly once forced a foreigner to chew a cigarette stick for violating the ordinance. Firecrackers, which kill and injure hundreds in the country during New Year’s revelries, are prohibited and a nighttime curfew for minors has eased juvenile delinquency.
What sets Mr Duterte apart from other politicians is his devil-may-care way with expletives, often uttered in public in the local Tagalog language, when he lets off steam over criminality, corruption and government incompetence.
In his most infamous outburst, Mr Duterte used an expletive on Pope Francis to express his disgust over a huge traffic jam caused by a papal visit to Manila last year that trapped the mayor for hours. He later apologised.
Nowadays, Mr Duterte’s oaths come with his campaign battle cry to “kill all” criminals, fuelling longstanding suspicions of his involvement in many unsolved killings of suspected criminals that authorities blame on vigilantes.
On the campaign trail, Mr Duterte has offered to replicate his record in Davao in the rest of a nation long weary of crime, rebellions and widespread corruption. He portrays himself as the “last card” of the people.
Jumping from mayor to president is a big leap in a country where leaders have traditionally risen from a national office, mostly as senators. Mr Duterte’s bold pledge to eradicate crime, especially drug trafficking and kidnappings, as well as corruption in three to six months has resonated with the public, but also sparked alarm and doubts.
Pressed to elaborate during a recent debate, he said suspected drug dealers ended up in jail in Manila – and dead in his city.
“When I say ‘leave Davao,’ you leave Davao. If you do not do that, you’re dead. That’s the way the story will go, no drama,” he said to a loud applause.
Rival candidate Mar Roxas recalled that 7.5 billion pesos ($158 million) worth of drugs and a number of suspects were seized when he was interior secretary in charge of the national police for three years, but he stressed that the drug menace remains, including in Davao.
The US-educated banker asked how Mr Duterte can end the problem in such a short time and expressed fears of unwarranted killings. A heated exchange ensued.
“If you do not know how to kill people and you’re afraid to die, that’s the problem, you cannot be a president,” Duterte told Roxas.
In a Youtube video last year that has gone viral, Duterte enthralled a crowd of drivers by saying he would have criminals hanged with laundry line. If he becomes president, he said, “even God will cry”.
Manila Bay would teem with fat fish, the mayor told a TV network in another warning to criminals, adding “that’s where I will dump you”.
The death threats have morphed into much-awaited punch lines spread by word of mouth, online and in his campaign ads and rallies. Supporters mob him like a movie celebrity, jostling to take selfies with him.
“He’s like a rock star,” said Dante Jimenez, a leading supporter who founded an anti-crime volunteers’ organization in the 1990s, after his brother was killed by drug dealers. “Just seeing him as president would give us a feeling of assurance and security.”
Mr Duterte’s antics have stunned rights activists. Phelim Kline of Human Rights Watch said his “boastful brand of violent impunity should be a path to prosecution, not a platform for political office.”
The watchdog has called for an investigation into suspicions of Mr Duterte’s involvement in extrajudicial killings by the so-called Davao death squads, mostly motorcycle-riding masked gunmen blamed for numerous killings of crime suspects and drug dealers. No charges have been filed against the mayor and he challenges critics to bring him to court.
Mr Duterte says he would not condone extrajudicial killings, but argues that police and soldiers could legally shoot suspects who put up a fight.
Panfilo Lacson, former head of national police, said most suspects would surrender when cornered and face years of prosecution, making Mr Duterte’s vow to solve crime in a short period “not doable, if not impossible”.
“No matter how good a sound bite it may sound, it will stay as such – a sound bite,” Mr Lacson said.
* Associated Press