Unlikely leader’s election to presidency is testament to appeal of ‘anti-establishment’ politicians.
In a nation with a famously raucous political scene, Rodrigo Duterte stands out as one of the Philippines’ most colorful, unorthodox and controversial figures.
The longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao has captivated Filipinos with vows of brutal but quick solutions to crime and poverty, offering himself as a strongman capable of up-ending politics as usual. A lawyer and former state prosecutor who briefly joined a communist organization in his youth, the 71-year-old has appalled many with foul-mouthed rants including calling the pope a “son of a whore.”
But while his outbursts dominated the headlines, none dented his popularity—even a joke that he wanted to rape a “beautiful” Australian missionary who was killed in a 1989 Davao prison riot.
His rollicking ride to the presidency in Monday’s election is testament to the appeal of an anti-establishment politician in a nation sickened by entrenched corruption and the domination of the economy by a few dozen elite families.
Duterte is also an undoubtedly charismatic politician and natural storyteller, with his street language and off-color jokes enraging his opponents but captivating audiences on the campaign trail in recent months. He has further burnished his populist credentials by always wearing jeans and casual shirts in public, and shunning the traditional “barong” shirt worn for formal occasions.
Duterte, a serial adulterer who admits to having four children by four women including his estranged wife, has always been a contentious character.
Jesuit priests expelled the truant and under-achieving high school student from the Ateneo de Davao School, where he boasted playing basketball while his classmates pored over books in the library.
Duterte, the son of a former provincial governor, was forced onto the straight and narrow by a disciplinarian teacher-mother who hailed from an indigenous Muslim group in the southern Philippines. But friends say his Catholic father, a lawyer who migrated from the central Philippines to the rich farming lands of the Muslim-majority south to seek better work opportunities, was his role model.
Christian Filipinos from the northern and central Philippines were encouraged by the government after independence to migrate to the Mindanao region and establish homesteads, holding up the region as a “land of promise.”
As presidential rivals began conceding defeat before dawn Tuesday, Duterte visited his parents’ mausoleum and sobbed unashamedly.
The young Duterte went to college in Manila, where Jose Maria Sison, the now exiled founder of the country’s deadly and long-running Communist insurgency, became one of his teachers and inspired his flirtation with the movement. He studied to become a lawyer at the San Beda Law School, and became a government prosecutor where he said he saw first-hand the corruption that pervades all levels of Philippine society.
He entered politics in 1986, after the fall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Ironically he was initially appointed as caretaker vice mayor of Davao by the new leader Corazon Aquino, mother of outgoing president and staunch Duterte critic Benigno Aquino.
Aquino warned during the election campaign that Duterte was a dictator in the making but voters took little heed.
Duterte has been mayor of Davao—the third largest city in the Philippines with a population of about two million—for most of the past two decades. Like much of the rest of Mindanao, Davao was wracked by communist and Muslim insurgencies when he first came into office. He now has a reputation for transforming the city into one of the nation’s safest and most orderly, with smoking banned in public places and a midnight curfew for drinking alcohol in public.
However some of his other methods have been hugely controversial. Duterte is accused of running death squads—made up of police, ex-communist rebels and hired assassins—that rights groups say have killed more than 1,400 people, including children.
Duterte has at times boasted of leading the death squads and at other times denied any links. But on the presidential campaign trail, he vowed to clean up the rest of the country using the same tactics as in Davao, and warned security forces would be unleashed to kill tens of thousands of criminals.