IN a year of global anti-establishment politics, Philippine voters appear ready for a renegade president: Self-confessed killer Rodrigo R. Duterte, a 71-year-old Viagra-chomping womanizer whose promise of a “bloody war” on crime has seen him race ahead in opinion polls.
But days before the actual polls, he was already charged with a corruption complaint by Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who alleged that the Davao City mayor charged salaries for 11,000 non-existent government employees.
The complaint was filed by Trillanes on Thursday before the Ombudsman, days after he released leaked documents purportedly showing Duterte has P2.4 billion ($51 million) in undeclared wealth in various bank accounts. Duterte denies amassing ill-gotten wealth.
Thursday’s complaint says ghost-employee salaries in 2014 cost Davao City P708 million ($15 million) and that a 2015 Commission on Audit report questioned the lack of documents to prove they were working.
The next step is for the Ombudsman to investigate the charge, and if it finds probable cause, a charge will be filed before an antigraft court.
Duterte has been mayor of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao for two decades, where his strongman swagger and endorsement of the execution of criminals earned him the nicknames “Duterte Harry” and “The Punisher.” He’s been likened to US presidential candidate Donald Trump, using populist rhetoric to reach Filipinos who feel the mainstream political parties are out of touch.
“Duterte’s main asset is that, rightly or wrongly, many people see him as having led a ‘Filipino life,’ with all the frustrations and hardships that entail,” said Stephen Norris, senior Southeast Asia analyst at Control Risks in Singapore. “To voters, it’s conceivable that he would actually make a difference on traffic, crime and corruption from the top down, because he has done so locally.”
The leadership in the Philippines has, for decades, been the realm of powerful families whose main assets are their wealth and dynastic connections. But the latest Pulse Asia Research Inc. survey shows Duterte, whose father was a lawyer and mother a teacher, holding a double-digit lead over the other candidates, which would see him take the presidency under a first-past-the-post voting system.
While President Aquino delivered average growth above 6 percent—one of the fastest rates in the world—and nearly 4 million jobs in his six-year term, the stronger economy has also spurred frustration. Record car sales have clogged the already-gridlocked capital Manila, while infrastructure spending hasn’t improved public transport. Graft, illegal drugs and crime are concerns of voters nationally, according to Pulse Asia, and poverty rates remain stubbornly high.
Often casually dressed in jeans and a polo shirt on the campaign trail ahead of the May 9 vote, Duterte’s style is described by Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISAS) senior fellow Malcolm Cook as a mix of former New York City Mayor “Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump and Mad Max.”
While his remarks resonate with voters, and the influential Philippine church Iglesia Ni Cristo reportedly backed Duterte this week, investors are voicing concern over his lack of economic experience, plus suggestions he’ll trade President Aquino’s fiscal discipline for spending on populist programs. Last month the peso slumped 1.7 percent, the worst-performing currency in Asia, and stocks fell 1.4 percent.
“I hope when he does become president, he’ll be more grounded and less controversial,” said Soo Hai Lim, a Hong Kong-based money manager at Baring Asset Management, which oversees about $41 billion. “His platform to reduce crime is good but, at the end of the day, investors need somebody who could implement policies that are generally good for the investment climate.”
Duterte has sought to reassure business leaders, but he’s also been unpredictable on the campaign trail and avoided specifics. He’s pledged to keep spending on public transport and cash handouts to the poor, while identifying education and agriculture as priorities.
“Our best-case scenario is that Duterte will be pragmatic in choosing his policies,” said Euben Paracuelles, an economist at Nomura Holdings Inc. in Singapore. That would aid an economy underpinned by consumer spending, remittances and a booming business-process outsourcing sector.
“If prudent fiscal and monetary policies remain, the Philippines can sustain growth of at least 6 percent under the next administration,” said Luz Lorenzo, head of Philippine research at Maybank ATR Kim Eng in Manila. “How good the next government is in implementation will make the difference in how fast the economy grows.”
Businessman Fervie Termulo, 35, is one voter in the staunchly Catholic nation of about 100 million people looking for a change. Termulo’s life has improved in some ways under President Aquino: The owner of an electronics repair shop has also become co-owner of a car-wash shop, opened two barbecue stalls and drives part-time for Uber Inc. He’s tripled his income to $640 a month, well above the minimum wage.
Yet, his wife was robbed at knife-point two years ago in their home province north of Manila, and Termulo says petty theft and drug abuse have risen. “I want these criminals to be stopped, and Duterte is the man for the job,” he said. “I don’t know how he will do it but I believe in him.”
Accusations from groups, such as Human Rights Watch, that Duterte’s advocacy of extrajudicial killings led to the deaths of more than 1,000 suspected criminals since the late-1990s have not dented his approval rating.
“Duterte is tapping into a few key sentiments,” said Greg Poling, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “In a country with persistently high violent crime, his tough talk and track record in cutting crime as mayor of Davao are attractive to many people, even if his methods were deeply troubling.”
As Duterte rises, the previously favored candidate, Sen. Grace Poe, has faded and she also trails President Aquino’s nominee Manuel A. Roxas II, with Vice President Jejomar C. Binay polling fourth. Poe and Roxas were named as the best to steer economic policy in a Bloomberg survey of economists.
Duterte’s tough-guy rhetoric has pushed the boundaries. When declaring his candidacy last year, he advised “people to put up several funeral-parlor businesses” to deal with a looming pile of dead drug traffickers. He later pledged to kill 100,000 criminals and feed their bodies to the fish in Manila Bay.
In a radio interview last December he admitted to helping kill at least three suspected rapist-kidnappers during a rescue operation in Davao in 1988. “I said ‘Put your hands up.’ No one did, so I attacked.” Duterte said he fired two magazines from his gun but denied committing a crime, saying he was trying to stop it as a “person in authority.”
Having portrayed himself as a man who lives modestly, he’s faced accusations over his wealth.
“I am not a rich man,” Duterte said on April 27. “I have never stolen. Don’t believe what others are saying. That’s pure garbage.”
He’s also unnerved other countries, spurring criticism from Australia after he told supporters at an event he should have been first in line for a turn when an Australian missionary was gang raped in 1989. He said later that’s just the way he speaks, though his camp issued an apology.
Image credits: AP/Bullit Marquez
Noynoy delivered average growth of 6%. It is always amazing that this statement is said as if it is true. When under Noynoy, the number of Filipinos living and working abroad have almost doubled, one has to ask the simple question why? But then again since people who get to go abroad are probably the best and brightest, who is left in this country as most likely the dumb and dumber types like the author of this article.
And the voters of a mass murderer who needs a bullet in his own head. He said he’s prepared to die – that’s good.
Why are the protester wearing masks? Is it because they are bought and paid for by the LP. And where are police with their guns. These people should be shot for causing traffic in a major intersection. They are not poor, nor hungry, just hooligans looking for some attention so that people may vote for their loser of a yellow candidate.
Don’t worry. This mass murderer will kill them all. Blood will pour into the streets like rivers. He is God and answers to nobody including you.