Supporters see Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as the man who can bring security to the country and rid it of drug dealers. While rivals keep a tone of civility in the Philippine presidential campaign trail, Duterte casually threatens to dump criminals in Manila Bay after shooting them and spikes his speeches with expletives. Image Credit: AP

"It's going to be bloody," the foul-mouthed Mayor Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte once declared. 

Duterte, 71, is the Mayor of Davao City, in Mindanao, well loved for his unconventional approach to busting crime and bureaucratic red tape. Seen as a benevolent dictator, he's the rockstar of Philippine politics — the social media is abuzz with his name more than any of his rivals.

This is no coincidence. In the past, he warned suspected criminals and drug peddlers they had two choices in leaving Davao: vertically or horizontally. "When I say leave Davao, you leave Davao. If you do not do that, you are dead."

Now, his campaign is alive, unstoppable, even if he lacks political machinery his rivals have. The lawyer, better known as "Digong”, is knocking on the doors of Malacanang, Manila’s seat of power.

His message is simple: curb the illicit drugs trade and crime in the Philippines within three to six months following his election.

He promises to execute up to 100,000 drug peddlers, rapists and criminals before  dumping their bodies in Manila Bay.

Duterte's mass appeal is riminiscent of the charm of former president Joseph Estrada. He has topped survey after survey in recent weeks, overtaking the front-runner, Senator Grace Poe, daughter of a Filipino action star.

And despite — or perhaps because of — his crass rape joke during a campaign on April 12 about Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill who had been raped and killed in 1989 (he said: “She was so beautiful. I thought, the mayor should have been first”), his ratings soared through the roof.


His 27% voter preference during the March 30-April 2 poll (against Poe’s 24 per cent) conducted by the Social Weather Stations, soared 6% more to 33% during a poll conducted from April 18-20.

Pollsters say Duterte's rating may have been higher if not for his bad campaign joke.

His supporters say they’d rather "endure a bad joke than a bad life", citing the alleged theft of public funds by legislators through the "pork barrel" system, blackmailing of passengers at the main international airport (and Aquino's refusal to fire the airport chief), pilfering of homecoming boxes of overseas Filipino workers (and Aquino's refusal to fire the head of Customs).

Add to this the legendary traffic in Manila and creaky metro rail service.

Now, Duterte could well be the next president of the Philippines.

Following are some of the reasons why:

Simple, effective solutions

Duterte’s solutions to what ails Filipino society today are downright simple, straightforward.

Though unorthodox, his ways enjoy overwhelming public support. And Duterte has the ability to demean both himself and the people he hates. A Youtube video compilation on Duterte, which drew nearly 2 million clicks, summarises his agenda.

That he engages in expletive-ridden talk, a habit seen by most Filipinos as honest, has raised his popularity even more.

Save for his supposed links with Davao’s vigilante squads to which more than 1,400 deaths were attributed, including more than a dozen victims of “false positives”, opponents find no weak points to latch on that could bring Duterte down.

Because of his open advocacy of vigilante justice and alleged coddling of the Davao death squad (DDS), his opponents have likened him to fascists like Mussolini, Hitler and even Marcos.

Duterte’s supporters would have none of it.

He has captured the imagination of the great mass of people — across all shades and classes — to his brand of leadership and his ways of doing things.

Track record

His achievements during his 22-year watch as mayor of Davao City are hard to ignore. He had been admired both inside and outside the Philippines, although his alleged coddling of DDS also drew relentless condemnation from both the local and international human rights groups.

None of the charges against him had been proven, let alone lodged, in any court.

As mayor, Duterte cut delays in processing in his city government transactions, including business license applications; gave free medical care to the poorest; and set up an efficient 911 emergency response system (one of the few cities in the world to have such).

He forged links with armed leftists, the military and the Moro insurgents – even facilitating the release of police officers kidnapped by communist rebels. Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front, a smaller but older rebel faction than the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), had endorsed Duterte.

There’s hope, too, that the nearly five-decade communist insurgency would finally end under a Duterte presidency.

His close ties with the armed Left, however, have untold ramifications with the Philippine military, which historically had staged several coups in the past — two of which were successful — to unseat a president. Any restiveness in the military could kill the economic momentum Aquino set in motion.

Five police officers captured by the communist New People's Army beam with smiles as they were being turned over to presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte during ceremonies in Paquibato district of Davao. Seated at right are two NPA members. — Philippine Daily Inquirer

One of his biggest campaign promises, however, is to rid the Philippines of the drug menace in three to six months.

His critics doubt this timetable, citing the presence of drugs and high rate of criminality in Davao City and police crime statistics, even after 20 years of his rule allegedly backed by DDS.


Connecting with all classes

Duterte has connected with the Filipino masses, both overseas and at home, in a way no other candidate did or can — with the possible exception of Joseph “Erap” Estrada.

Like Estrada, who gained nearly 11 million votes in the 1998 presidential elections, Duterte is perceived as the ultimate solution for Philippines’ woes. Whether that belief has any staying power beyond six months, or the Constitutional term limit of six years, only time will tell.

Duterte’s popularity rests on more solid footing than Estrada’s. Digong has the ability to poke fun at himself, but at the same time espouse a take-no-prisoners attitude in tackling corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency and criminality.

He has made self-deprecating comments and does not cower from dancing on the streets with ordinary folks. Watch Duterte perform the "Budots" dance.

Duterte's statements against the establishment has endeared him to the masses. In his many campaign speeches, Duterte vehemently deplores the “imperialism” of Manila — the overconcentration of power in the capital which saps the other regions of energy and clogs up development.

He has found much support from overseas Filipino workers, who long to rejoin their families back home, if only things were better. Supposed endorsements by the Singaporean PM or US President Obama of Duterte turned out to be trumped up. But, there are numerous Filipino celebrities that did endorse him. Here's some.


Duterte, a father of four (three from his first wife), has lived a rather no-frills life. His house in Davao, where he lives with his common-law wife and their daughter, is quite ordinary.

Duterte enjoys overwhelming support from all classes of society, from across all spectrums – including Communists and Moro rebels. He portrays himself as the Philippines’ first self-proclaimed Leftist president. Yet the crux of his campaign that has the widest appeal is to turn the Philippine governance into a federal one, instead of the existing unitary system.

He portrays himself as the Philippines’ first self-proclaimed Leftist president. Yet the crux of his campaign that has the widest appeal is the promise the turn the Philippine governance into a federal one, instead of the existing unitary system.

That he has a simple lifestyle is one of his strongest points that it's almost unassailable in the eyes of his supporters.

But Senator Sonny Trillanes alleges Duterte puts on false image of poverty as hundreds of millions of pesos stashed in a Philippine bank account were not declared in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

Strict Philippine bank secrecy laws penalises the disclosure of bank account details without the account holder's waiver or consent. On March 10, Duterte signed a symbolic waiver with his running-mate during a campaign sortie in Los Banos, south of Manila, to demonstrate their clean-government agenda. 

On April 27, Duterte said he's withdrawing the waiver, supposedly to make life hard for Trillanes ("Papahirapan ko si Trillanes"), a cashiered navy officer who was jailed for seven years for leading a failed coup plot against former President Gloria Arroyo. Trillanes, now running against Cayetano, won a senate seat while in jail.

Trillanes' revelations are the most damaging yet for the high-flying Duterte, just a few days before the end of the campaign period.

Corruption, governance

Much has improved in the country's governance under Benigno Aquino III. Out of 168 countries ranked in the Corruption Perceptions Index, the Philippines ranked 95th in 2015 (alongside Mexico and Armenia), 39 notches higher from its spot in 2010, at 134th place. The 2015 rank of the Philippines, however, was 10 notches lower than its rank in the previous year.

Yet there's a perception of bureaucratic inefficiency in other agencies. Bribery is rampant, especialy at Customs, the Land Transportation Office and airport immigration. To Duterte supporters, a vote for any other candidate in the five-way race on May 9, 2016, means telling young Filipinos that bribery is OK.

Coupled with glaring inefficiencies in handling of mass transport system and never-ending traffic woes in Manila, government inefficiency built by years of neglect and a culture of corruption, have pushed many Filipinos to the edge (of which some 10 million out of the 100 million population have decided to find greener pastures overseas).

Some examples of abuse of power and dereliction of duty include the alleged "laglag-bala" extortion scheme at the Manila airport, breaking open and pilfering of contents of “Balikbayan” (homecoming) boxes sent by overseas Filipino to their loved ones, and the gargantuan traffic mess on Manila’s perennially choked roads.

President Benigno Aquino III had refused to fire the head of Manila International Airport as well as his secretary of Department Transportation and Communication (DOTC).

Rightly or wrongly, both had been blamed for Manila’s traffic woes, bad train service and the car plates mess at the Land Transportation Office — a lair of corrupt government officials blamed for abetting carnappers — getting delayed for months, for example.

Aquino has been lauded for turning the economy around and running after big-time crooks and disgracing the likes of Chief Justice Renato Corona and the Senate President Juan Enrile. Now, he's harangued for turning a blind eye to his friends' follies. These follies, blown up on social media, stuck with the voters who have grown weary of bad public service.

Duterte, in his irreverent, unorthodox style Filipinos have come to love, now threatens to fire everyone at the airport (apart from changing its name) and DOTC, further warning he will make those behind “laglag bala” scam swallow bullets.


Duterte is the only candidate in the five-way May 9 race calling for federalism. This call is not new, but it’s been drowned out in the past. Now, many see Duterte as the best chance for it to succeed.

Mayor Rodrigo 'Digong' Duterte, the front-runner in the upcoming Philippine presidential election on May 9, 2016.

To be sure, abolishing the Philippine Senate and turning the lower of House of Representatives into a parliament won't be an easy ride.

But it could potentially plug the blackhole of billions of public funds many believe line the pockets of legislators and contractors who in the past delivered nothing but substandard infrastructure projects to their constituents.

Aquino had many achievements to his credit, but is perceived to have done nothing to plug this pork barrel hole. Morever, the Supreme Court (many of whose judges had been Aquino's appointees) ruled that the use of government savings — a rare event that resulted in putting up bids of state-funded infrastructure projects online — was unconstitutional.

It is hoped, too, that the move to have a federation of regions or states would tilt the imbalance between Luzon, especially the National Capital Region, and the rest of the country.

Changing the form of governance from the existing unitary system to a federal one would better unite the country, according to many.

Duterte argues the move would also address the long-standing marginalisation of the Muslim Filipinos in the south.

By pushing for a federal governance, Duterte has effectively thrown away the idea of piecemeal autonomy.

After years of talks, the current Aquino government had finally sealed the deal for Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front last year, but the legislation has been kept in the Congressional backburner.

Initial support for BBL was strong, but it fizzled out following the Mamasapano fiasco, a botched operation to arrest a terrorist in a rebel's lair that killed 44 special police officers — for which President Benigno Aquino had been piloried and never seemed to recover.

To run a country of 100 million people geographically spread across thousands of islands from a central point — Manila — is a logistical nightmare, which makes Duterte's call for a federal form of governance quite compelling.

This move, however, won't come without a fight being put up by Congress and the Senate, and those who believe the present system is better.

Duterte vows to abolish the legislature if the lawmakers come in the way of needed Constitutional amendments, potentially making him a one-man rule, in which he is both executive and lawmaker.

Decisive leadership

Most Filipinos see Duterte as clean, a leader who does not steal from public coffers, and who is an effective action-man. Many pin their hopes on him to address the most pressing problems faced by the common people.

His biggest asset yet: the public perception of decisiveness and a strong will to do what he says he will do.

That he appears to take shortcuts to achieve his goals is something many find justifiable, even refreshing. His habitual use of foul language echoes the thoughts of many who had enough with perceived government inefficiency and all-talk-no-action.

On May 9, 54 million Filipinos will elect their leaders for the next six years. This vote is crucial to the Philippines’ reputation as the "rising star" of Asia. Credit for this lies in no small part to the "weak" leadership of President Benigno Aquino III.

As voters weigh their choices, people willing to take the risk with Duterte see him as the embodiment of the strong leadership and change they want.

Never mind if the looming change does not guarantee to take the Philippines farther ahead of its neighbours — or backwards.

In the minds of his supporters, a benevolent dictatorship personified by Duterte is justified if ordinary citizens as well as businessmen feel safer across the entire length and breadth of this archipelago of 7,107 islands.