MANILA – In a year of global anti-establishment politics, Philippine voters appear ready for a renegade president: Self-confessed killer Rodrigo Duterte, a 71 year-old Viagra-chomping womaniser whose promise of a “bloody war” on crime has seen him race ahead in opinion polls.
On Twitter, #DuterteTillTheEnd is trending.
Known as The Punisher and Duterte Harry
Mr Duterte has been mayor of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao for two decades, where his strongman swagger and endorsement of the execution of criminals earned him the nicknames “The Punisher” and “Duterte Harry”. This is a play on the “Dirty Harry” detective movies starring Clint Eastwood.
He has been credited with transforming Davao from being “murder capital of the Philippines” to one of the country’s safest and most orderly cities.
When he was appointed officer in charge of Davao in 1986, Mr Duterte set off by ending a bloody war in the city between anti-communist militias and leftist partisans.
In one particularly bizarre episode in 2012, he offered a two million-peso (S$60,000) reward for anyone who could bring him the severed head of a known leader of a gang of car thieves.
“Duterte is tapping into a few key sentiments," said Greg Poling, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “In a country with persistently high violent crime, his tough talk and track record in cutting crime as mayor of Davao are attractive to many people, even if his methods were deeply troubling.”
Mr Duterte’s tough-guy rhetoric has pushed the boundaries.
When declaring his candidacy last year, he advised “people to put up several funeral parlor businesses” to deal with a looming pile of dead drug traffickers.
Addressing criminals, he said in one TV interview: “I do not want to commit a crime but, if by chance, God will place me there, you all better watch out. That 1,000 will become 100,000. I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”
In a radio interview in December he admitted to helping kill at least three suspected rapist-kidnappers during a rescue operation in Davao in 1988.
“I said ‘Put your hands up’. No one did, so I attacked.”
Duterte said he fired two magazines from his gun but denied committing a crime, saying he was trying to stop it as a “person in authority.”
Accusations from groups such as Human Rights Watch that Duterte’s advocacy of extra-judicial killings led to the deaths of more than 1,000 suspected criminals since the late 1990s have not dented his approval rating.
“Not a rich man”
The leadership in the Philippines has for decades been the realm of powerful families whose main assets are their wealth and dynastic connections. But the latest Pulse Asia Research survey shows Mr Duterte, whose father was a lawyer and a former governor and mother a teacher, holding a double-digit lead over the other candidates, which would see him take the presidency under a first-past-the-post voting system.
Having portrayed himself as a man who lives modestly, he’s faced accusations over his wealth. Senator Antonio Trillanes, a vice-presidential aspirant supporting Poe, accused Duterte of failing to declare assets of 2.41 billion pesos (S$69 million) across 17 accounts over nine years.
“I am not a rich man,” Mr Duterte said on April 27. “I have never stolen. Don’t believe what others are saying. That’s pure garbage.”
Likened to Donald Trump
He’s been likened to US presidential candidate Donald Trump, using populist rhetoric to reach Filipinos who feel the mainstream political parties are out of touch.
“Duterte’s main asset is that rightly or wrongly many people see him as having led a ‘Filipino life,’ with all the frustrations and hardships that entails,” said Stephen Norris, senior Southeast Asia analyst at Control Risks in Singapore.
“To voters, it’s conceivable that he would actually make a difference on traffic, crime and corruption from the top down, because he has done so locally.”
Often casually dressed in jeans and a polo shirt on the campaign trail ahead of the May 9 vote, Mr Duterte’s style is described by Institute of Southeast Asian Studies senior fellow Malcolm Cook as a mix of former New York City mayor “Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump and Mad Max.”
Lacks economic experience
While his remarks resonate with voters, and the influential Philippine church Iglesia ni Cristo reportedly backed Mr Duterte this week, investors are voicing concern over his lack of economic experience, plus suggestions he’ll trade outgoing president Beningno Aquino’s fiscal discipline for spending on populist programmes. Last month the peso slumped 1.7 per cent, the worst performing currency in Asia, and stocks fell 1.4 per cent.
“I hope when he does become president he’ll be more grounded and less controversial,” said Soo Hai Lim, a Hong Kong- based money manager at Baring Asset Management, which oversees about $41 billion. “His platform to reduce crime is good but at the end of the day investors need somebody who could implement policies that are generally good for the investment climate.”
Mr Duterte has sought to reassure business leaders, but he’s also been unpredictable on the campaign trail and avoided specifics. He’s pledged to keep spending on public transport and cash handouts to the poor, while identifying education and agriculture as priorities.
He’s also unnerved other countries, spurring criticism from Australia after he told supporters at an event he should have been first in line for a turn when an Australian missionary was gang raped in 1989. He said later that’s just the way he speaks, though his camp issued an apology.
Mr Duterte has also wavered between threatening China over their territorial dispute in the South China Sea, to pledging to hold talks.
Raises concerns of a return to dictatorship
His disdain for the machinery of government – he has vowed to abolish Congress if it stands in his way – has raised concerns of a return to the era of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Marcos’ son Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is in the race for the vice-presidency under the Philippines’ split-ticket voting system.
Mr Duterte may use executive orders to try to expand his powers if he wins, said Cook from ISEAS. “That would lead to more political uncertainty and conflict between different arms of government. If he tries to overstep, the Supreme Court would try to limit that.”
Tough guy image
Mr Duterte was a street-smart thug in his teens. At 14, he flew a plane over his school to throw rocks at it after the dean gave him a public scolding. But he did grow out of his mean streak, managed to get a law degree, and then a job as prosecutor.
In public, his life seems to follow the script of a B-rated action movie.
He has been seen patrolling his city on a Harley-Davidson. At night, he prowls the streets incognito as a cab driver.
He also has a reputation as a ladies’ man, with at least two women in his life.
He was married to Ms Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former flight attendant, for 27 years. They have three children, all adults now.
He now lives with a new partner, Ms Honeylet Avencena, a nurse, with whom he has an 11-year-old daughter.
SOURCES: THE STRAITS TIMES ARCHIVES, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS