MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - A no-nonsense Philippine mayor known for being tough on crime, who limited access to cigarettes and liquor and banned firecrackers, is flirting with running for president next year.
Mr Rodrigo Duterte, 70, said fighting graft must be a priority for the country's next leader to safeguard economic growth. Having built his reputation over two decades leading the southern metropolis of Davao - now one of the world's safest cities with a population of 1.4 million - he said he faces the choice of retiring, or going for the top job.
"Maybe if my rating goes to 95 per cent, then I will run," he said Wednesday in an interview in Manila. Until then, Mr Duterte said priority should be given to Manila-based politicians such as Senator Grace Poe, Vice President Jejomar Binay and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas for the 2016 slate.
Whoever becomes leader after Mr Benigno Aquino - who by law is only allowed a single six year term - will inherit a series of challenges, including a more assertive China on South China Sea territorial disputes and an economy that grew at its slowest pace in three years in the three months through March as demand for its exports weakens.
"The next president has to deal with China, with the rebellion in Mindanao, the illegal drug issue and criminality," Mr Duterte said. They will need to spend more, use diplomacy to counter China and consider a provincial parliament in Mindanao to help bring peace to the region after four decades of Islamic insurgency, he said.
Ms Poe and Mr Binay led the latest polls on preferred candidates from Pulse Asia Research Inc. and the Social Weather Stations. Mr Duterte was third in Pulse Asia's most recent poll with 15 per cent to Mr Binay's 22 per cent and Ms Poe's 30 per cent.
Law and order must be achieved at all costs, the mayor said. That's how Davao, known as the nation's murder capital during the time of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, became one of the country's more prosperous cities under Mr Duterte's rule.
"Duterte's meteoric rise in surveys certainly underscores the appeal of his tough leadership style," said Mr Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at De La Salle University. "Davao's famed safety and extremely low criminal incidents feed his law-and-order mantra which many Filipinos find worthy to consider."
A lawyer who worked as a prosecutor in Davao for nine years before becoming vice mayor in 1986 and mayor two years later, Mr Duterte targeted drug traffickers and sexual predators in a broad crackdown on crime. "If you're a drug trafficker, if you're a warlord, go somewhere else," he said. "Leave Davao either vertical or horizontal."
The number of reported crimes in Davao City dropped 21 per cent from 2010 to 2011, according to the National Statistical Coordination Board. Davao is safer than Bergen in Norway and Bern in Switzerland, according to crowd-sourced rating site Numbeo.com.
That peace and order came at a cost, according to Human Rights Watch, which has accused Duterte of giving tacit support to extra judicial killings of more than 1,000 suspected criminals since the late 1990s.
"The long official tolerance of Mr Duterte's advocacy of summary killings as an effective crime-fighting strategy needs to stop," Mr Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last month.
Asked about the claims against him, Duterte said "it's a myth." 'Strong Character' "In the performance of duty and self defense, the policeman can kill them," Duterte said of known criminals. Threatening criminals cemented his reputation and was usually enough of a deterrent, he said.
"Duterte is a very impressive man; a strong character and has a sense of what needs to be done and gets it done," said Mr Peter Wallace, a Philippine-based columnist who organises business discussions. "People now want a crime-free environment. They don't want their pockets picked, their cell phones stolen. They don't want their uncles shot or their kids to do drugs."
Mr Duterte said his main objective is to help avert fresh conflict if the law touted to end the insurgency in Mindanao isn't passed during Mr Aquino's term. "This is why I am going around the country speaking about federalism and people misconstrued it and thought I was campaigning to be president."