Philippine presidential front runner Rodrigo Duterte tones down rhetoric in final rally

Filipino presidential candidate, Rodrigo Duterte (centre), gestures during an election campaign rally in Quezon city, Philippines, on April 23, 2016.
Filipino presidential candidate, Rodrigo Duterte (centre), gestures during an election campaign rally in Quezon city, Philippines, on April 23, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

MANILA - Some 300,000 gathered on Saturday (May 7) at the sprawling Luneta Park, in the heart of the capital Manila, according to police estimates, braving the searing afternoon heat, for the final campaign rally of Mr Rodrigo Duterte, two days before the Philippine presidential election on Monday (May 9).

"We need change. He's not like the other candidates, with their empty promises. He is tough," Mr Zaldy Cardiente, 40, who sells bean curd from two tin containers he carries with a pole on his shoulder, told this reporter.

Mr Warren de la Cerna, 35, another street vendor, said Mr Duterte "is the real thing".

Despite crass jokes about rape, charges of ill-gotten wealth and ties to communists, Mr Duterte remains firmly at the top of surveys on whom Filipinos will elect as their new president.

The 71-year-old, tough-talking mayor, who over the past half-year has risen from a reluctant candidate to the one most likely to be the country's next president, leads his nearest rivals, Senator Grace Poe, 47, and former interior minister Mar Roxas by 11 points.

Crowds gathered at the closing rallies – called the “miting de avance” - of Ms Poe, Mr Roxas, and Vice-President Jejomar Binay, 73, were estimated by police to be between 10,000 and 50,000.

There will be a cooling-off period on Sunday before voters cast their votes on Monday (May 9).  
 
In his rally speech, Mr Duterte returned to his theme on ending crime and corruption, but also took a step back from his remarks about summarily executing criminals.
 
"There are laws in the land. I will endorce them. Due process, by all means. I will give it to you," he told his supporters.
 
He also dismissed speculations he would declare martial law, but said he would transition into a "revolutionary government" if faced with a coup d'etat.
Ms Poe, meanwhile, took potshots at Mr Duterte, saying: "We don't need an executioner. It is settling to hear that if we do something wrong, we'll pay for it with our lives."
 
Mr Roxas also took a jab at Mr Duterte. "We are Filipinos. We fear God, and we respect each other," he said.
 

But to Duterte supporters, he is the straight-shooting everyman who gets things done, and he will end crime and corruption - blights that have persisted for decades.

On Saturday, they came to Luneta Park from all over metropolitan Manila in jeepneys, buses, trains, and cars festooned with the face of the man they believe will deliver them from crime, corruption and poverty.

The Straits Times had arrived at the rally inside a coach so packed that no handrail-holding was needed.

Walking towards Luneta, groups of teenagers could be heard cheering: "What time is it? Duterte!"

They were cheering as they marched, mostly wearing Mr Duterte's colours of red and black.

On stage, a mix of pop ditties, nationalist songs, and political speeches kept the crowd cheering.

The mood was celebratory. They could already taste victory.

Analysts have described the groundswell of support for Mr Duterte as a movement, even calling it a phenomenon.

It's not difficult to agree with that hyperbole when attending one of Mr Duterte's rallies.

One wouldn't want to be caught chanting the wrong name or wearing yellow, the colour of President Benigno Aquino's standard, which for Mr Duterte's supporters had become a symbol of upper-class greed and government ineptitude.