• SHARE

They call him “The Punisher” and “Duterte Harry,” a pun on the role played by Clint Eastwood in one of his earliest, and bloodiest, films. He is Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City, and he was elected president of the Philippines on Monday. As can be expected from those nicknames, Duterte ran a populist campaign, promising law and order and a fair deal for ordinary citizens who feel exploited and ignored by an entrenched political elite. It is, sadly, an all too familiar tale this year.

Duterte fashions himself as a plain-speaking tough guy, a political outsider, beholden to no one. In fact, he is the son of the former governor of Davao Province and a member of the family that ran Cebu province during the Marcos era. He trained as a lawyer and served as a prosecutor in Davao for nine years before becoming vice mayor in 1986; two years later he became mayor and has been re-elected seven times. He may be the law and order candidate, but he has enjoyed a privileged background and is an outsider only in the narrowest sense of the word.

He has been a success, however. He turned Davao City, once the murder capital of the Philippines, into one of the country’s safest and most prosperous cities. His approach is simple: kill the criminals. He has been denounced by Human Rights Watch for using death squads, groups of men on the government payroll, to kill criminals, drug dealers and even street children. HRW believes that more than 1,000 people have been subjected to extra-judicial killings under Duterte. He counters that deadly force is used only in response to violence, but he has also warned criminals that if he became president: “The fish in Manila Bay will get fat. That is where I will dump you!”

That swagger struck a chord on Monday, when Filipinos turned out en mass — 84 percent of the voting public cast ballots — and gave Duterte 39 percent of the vote to best his rivals in the race to succeed outgoing President Benigno Acquino. Coming in second was Manuel Roxas, a former investment banker and grandson of the first president of the Philippine Republic, with 23 percent of the vote, and Grace Poe, a first-term senator, was third with 21 percent.

The vice presidential race is independent of the top of the ticket contest. It is much closer and the final result will not be known until all votes are counted. Throughout the tally, the lead has swung between Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a senator and the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted in 1986, and Sen. Maria Leonor Robredo, With 93 percent of the votes counted, Robredo led by less than 1 percent; the loser is certain to demand a recount.

At first glance, Duterte’s victory seems inexplicable. The Philippine economy has performed well under Aquino. A country once derided as “the sick man of Asia” is now considered “the strong man of Asia.” Over the last six years, the economy has expanded an average of 6.2 percent. The International Monetary Fund reckons that the Philippines will continue at that pace, expanding 6 percent in 2016 and 6.2 percent in 2017, making it the fastest growing of the five big ASEAN economies.

The problem is that growth has been uneven. Despite the impressive showing, more than a quarter of the population — 26.3 percent — was still living in poverty during the first half of 2015. One in four households is still considered poor. Average per capita GDP is just under $3,000. At the same time, one study estimated that the collective wealth of the 40 richest families in the country increased by $13 billion during 2010-2011, claiming 76.5 percent of the overall increase in GDP during that period. Duterte has shown a masterful ability to tap a growing sense of anger and unfairness: He even criticized the pope — calling him “the son of a whore” — for causing traffic jams during his visit — in a country where 83 percent of the population considers itself to be Catholic.

Apart from his muscular inclinations, it is not clear what Duterte stands for. When pressed for details, he said he is prepared to adopt the policies of his competition, if they work. After his election victory, he accepted his win with “extreme humility” and called for “healing.”

One of his biggest tests is the dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea. The Aquino government filed a case with the international tribunal in The Hague to settle issues related to the dispute; the ruling is due within the next few weeks or months. Duterte has said he favors a multilateral approach — working with Japan, the United States and Australia — to settle the dispute, but he also said he would hold direct talks with China if the other approach does not bring results in two years.

Duterte is thought to favor a softer line than the Aquino government. A readjustment in Manila’s policy, in combination with the prospect of human rights abuses that follow from his crackdown against criminals, portends new strains in the alliance with the United States. It would also pose problems for Tokyo, which has worked with the Aquino government to build the capacity of the Philippine navy. For his part, Duterte seems indifferent to any problems that he might create with his partners and friends.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW