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Can Rodrigo Roa Duterte lead the nation towards promised change?
Published 9:00 AM, June 29, 2016
“Ikaw ang pangulo para sa pagbabago… Sawa na ang bayan ko sa magnanakaw na tao.
(You are the president for change.. My country is tired of people who steal.)
These are the first lines of folk musician Freddie Aguilar’s song for President-elect Rodrigo Duterte.
It plays inside Duterte’s pick-up truck one night in Davao City after one of his post-elections late-night press conferences.
It’s never been a genuine partnership. It’s always been a relationship dominated by U.S. interests. Growing up in the 1960s, Duterte lived through a period when the United States firmly supported a regime that was even more brutal than this particular regime and was willing to not criticize that particular government. He noticed that the United States was willing to overlook human rights violations when these violations served their geopolitical interests. He was unhappy about the double standards. [Editor’s Note: The Obama administration has expressed concern over reports of extrajudicial killings and encouraged Manila to abide by its international human rights obligations.] For the first time, the United States is facing someone who is willing to challenge this historically imbalanced relationship. It is unclear what might happen to the relationship under the administration of Donald J. Trump, but initial indications are that it may not focus on human rights in the Philippines. President-Elect Trump has reportedly endorsed the Philippine president’s effort, allegedly saying that the country is going about the drug war "the right way," according to Duterte.
The campaign season, the time when this song could be heard everywhere, is over. Duterte has won the presidential elections by a landslide with 16.6 million votes, the first such victory for a Mindanaoan.
But Duterte can’t seem to let this song go. A few days later, he plays it again in the middle of another press briefing.
Although human rights organizations and political leaders have spoken out against the crackdown, Duterte has been relatively successful at not having the legislature engaged in any serious oversight of or investigation into this war. Philippine Senator Leila de Lima, former chairperson of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and a former secretary of justice under the previous administration, had condemned the war on drugs and held hearings on human rights violations associated with these extrajudicial killings. However, in August, Duterte alleged that he had evidence of de Lima having an affair with her driver, who had been using drugs and collecting drug protection money when de Lima was the justice secretary. De Lima was later removed from her position chairing the investigative committee in a 16-4 vote by elected members of the Senate committee.
He asks for silence. What are his marching orders for his Cabinet? Just listen to this song, he says.
As it plays, Duterte, alone in the table in front, rests his head upon his hands.
To hear this song is to be transported back to his Miting de Avance in Luneta on May 7.
That night, some 600,000 people filled the park.
That day, in the parlance of inaugural speeches everywhere — and at odds with later threats to "slaughter" three million drug users — Duterte kicked off a “crusade for a better and brighter tomorrow” in the Philippines. The following day police shot dead four people for drug-related crimes in the street. And the day after that, 14 more people were killed.
A giant flag was passed around as Duterte clutched a smaller flag to his chest and, with tears in his eyes, declared, “It will be only one Filipino nation.”
To hear this song is to be reminded that Duterte has become a symbol.
Since becoming president of the Philippines in June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte has launched a war on drugs that has resulted in the extrajudicial deaths of thousands of alleged drug dealers and users across the country. The Philippine president sees drug dealing and addiction as “major obstacles to the Philippines’ economic and social progress,” says John Gershman, an expert on Philippine politics. The drug war is a cornerstone of Duterte’s domestic policy and represents the extension of policies he’d implemented earlier in his political career as the mayor of the city of Davao. In December 2016, the United States withheld poverty aid to the Philippines after declaring concern over Duterte’s war on drugs.
To his supporters, he is the catalyst for change. He is the anger vote against the supposedly blundering Aquino administration. He holds the torch for Mindanao and Visayas against “imperial Manila.” He is the strong leader with a soft heart. He is the ordinary man against the oligarchs, the crime-fighter, the benevolent dictator, the savior.
And there have been numerous incidents of Duterte's cabinet members and official communication channels sharing false news articles. A large contingent of Filipinos derive their news mainly from Facebook and false stories circulate with alarming speed: just 26 fake Facebook accounts can reach 3 million other pages, according to research by Rappler.
Supporters of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte react during the 'miting de avance' in Manila, Philippines, May 7, 2016. Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA
The adoration of his supporters is matched only by the revulsion of his critics.
The war on drugs has received a high level of popular support from across the class spectrum in the Philippines. The most recent nationwide survey on presidential performance and trust ratings conducted from September 25 to October 1 by Pulse Asia Research showed that Duterte’s approval rating was around 86 percent. Even through some people are concerned about these deaths, they support him as a president for his position on other issues. For example, he has a relatively progressive economic agenda, with a focus on economic inequality.
To them, he is a threat to democracy, a sexist punk, a man for whom nothing is holy. He is the cold-blooded murderer whose respect for human rights is a self-admitted cop-out. He is a symbol, not so much of hope, as of despair, the vote of people so jaded they can no longer tell good change from bad.
In December, Duterte said of an ISIS-linked militant group: "They threatened to go down from the mountains and burn down Marawi. Go ahead, be my guest. We will wait for you there." This May, the militants did just that. More than a month later, an ad-hoc coalition of militants continues to hold sections of the city. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people have been killed and over 220,000 have been forced to flee their homes.
Duterte is about to take on an even more symbolic role. On June 30, his oath-taking as the 16th president of the Philippines will make him the father of the country, the first Mindanaoan president, the man at the helm of a nation leaving behind "Daang Matuwid" territory.
But symbols don’t lead countries.
So began a presidency that would upend national norms, tilt regional politics, and thrust the Philippines into the international spotlight. More than 7,000 people, mostly poor slum-dwellers, have been killed in Duterte's brutal war on drugs. Relations with Russia and China have warmed as old allegiances with Europe and the U.S. turned frosty. And a still ongoing city siege led by ISIS-linked militants has seen martial law — a phrase never far from Duterte's lips — declared across the country's south.
Fallible men do. Duterte is every inch as flawed as the next man, as he so often reminds us.
So who is this man they call Rody Duterte?
A map of how all regions in the country voted last May 9 shows Duterte won in most of Mindanao and in major regions in the Visayas like Cebu (53% of all votes) and Bohol (495%).
But even big-data chicanery cannot insulate Duterte from the latest blow to his image as the Philippines' protector. Zeroing in on drugs, the first president from Mindanao managed to overlook the terrorist threat in his own backyard.
Anyone who followed him around as he campaigned in these regions won’t be surprised by this turn-out.
Duterte bewitched these regions with his naughty humor, infectious anger, irresistible promise of “true” change, and most importantly, the durable roots that tie him to their people.
When Rodrigo Duterte campaigned for president, he claimed that drug dealing and drug addiction were major obstacles to the Philippines’ economic and social progress. He promised a large-scale crackdown on dealers and addicts, similar to the crackdown that he engaged in when he was mayor of Davao, one of the Philippines’ largest cities on the southern island of Mindanao. When Duterte became president in June, he encouraged the public to “go ahead and kill” drug addicts. His rhetoric has been widely understood as an endorsement of extrajudicial killings, as it has created conditions for people to feel that it’s appropriate to kill drug users and dealers. What have followed seem to be vigilante attacks against alleged or suspected drug dealers and drug addicts. The police are engaged in large-scale sweeps. The Philippine National Police also revealed a list of high-level political officials and other influential people who were allegedly involved in the drug trade.
Duterte branded himself as the Bisaya and the Mindanaoan rolled into one and he could do this credibly because of his parents.
Philippine Pesident Rodrigo Duterte speaks during the change of command for the new Armed Forces chief at a military camp in Quezon city, Metro Manila, December 7, 2016. (Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters)
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THE DUTERTES. A young Rody Duterte (second from left) poses for a photo with his parents and siblings. Photo from Davao City government
His father Vicente comes from Danao, Cebu, and his mother Soledad is a Maranao born in Agusan del Norte.
Representative of millions of Filipinos, the Duterte family were migrants.
Like that of U.S. President Donald Trump, the rise of the Philippine strongman did not happen in a vacuum. Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino III was widely regarded as uncorrupt, kept the economy growing at an average of 6% per year, and created about 4 million new jobs. But he did not deliver the structural changes required to address abject poverty in the Philippines. Even as the middle classes ballooned in nearby Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, the poorest Filipinos saw scant change since wresting democracy from the kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos 30 years ago. Unemployment remains high and about one quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
Vicente moved his family from Cebu to Southern Leyte before finally settling in Davao.
Rody himself was born in Maasin, Southern Leyte and stayed there until he was around 6 years old. He still recalls the smell of copra roasting in the sun as he and his friends passed by fields aboard open-air trucks.
Aside from bequeathing Rody with multi-rootedness, his parents gave him his first experience of politics and public service.
Duterte was also successful at negotiating with the Philippine Communist Party. He was seen broadly as sympathetic to their concerns about poverty, inequality, and housing, and pursued a reasonably robust anti-poverty agenda while he was mayor. He was also interested in public health issues, launching the first legislation against public smoking in the Philippines, which he has claimed he will launch nationally.
When the Cebuano Vicente decided to run for governor of the undivided Davao, he gave his 18-year-old son Rody the task of accompanying him during his campaign sorties all over the province.
Rody took his first step in the campaign trail, going from barangay to barangay talking to people from all walks of life.
But what surprised Maria Ressa, founder of the Philippine news site Rappler, was that rather than dismantling their social media apparatus after the elections, Duterte's team cranked it up. Ressa tells TIME that state sponsored disinformation campaigns have since been used to smear critics and political opponents, especially female politicians and journalists. “The end goal is to silence dissent; to manufacture consensus,” she says. Duterte's fiercest critic Sen. Leila de Lima has been imprisoned for four months on dubious charges following an #ArrestDeLima hashtag campaign; Ressa says she was the target of a similar hashtag, and at the height of the smear was receiving more than 2,000 hate messages per day.
“He was talking to the barangays already at the time. It was his job to deliver whatever it is, or anything that has to do with the elections,” said Jocellyn Duterte, Rody’s youngest sister who was another of their father’s campaign companions.
President Rodrigo Duterte delivered the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday afternoon, July 24. Here are our quick notes on the things we saw and the things that the President said.
Vicente’s succeeding terms as governor increased Rody’s exposure to public service and the life of a politician.
Those days, the Duterte home on Talisay Street was an “open house,” shared Jocellyn. She remembers waking up in the morning to see long lines of people at the front door waiting to speak to her father.
The Philippine judicial system is very slow and perceived as corrupt, enabling Duterte to act proactively and address the issue of drugs in a non-constructive way with widespread violations of human rights. Moreover, in the face of a corrupt, elite-dominated political system and a slow, ineffective, and equally corrupt judicial system, people are willing to tolerate this politician who promised something and is now delivering.
“They would be asking for a job or money to help bury a dead relative. Those days, we were face to face with the masses,” she said.
“Can you embrace the poor and the sick?” This question, Duterte claims, has guided him throughout his life in politics.
These long lines of people would be replicated decades later in the lines that form every night outside Duterte’s own office in Davao City Hall where he personally listened to concerns of the supplicants - from excessive electric bills to cases of domestic violence.
Duterte admitted during one episode of his weekend television show, Gikan sa Mara, Para sa Masa, that his father, upon hearing his son considering a career in politics, posed a question to him: “Can you embrace the poor and the sick?”
This question, Duterte claims, has guided him throughout his life in politics.
Enter Rodrigo Duterte: a tough talking mayor who would patrol his southern city of Davao on a motorcycle at dusk. Over some 20 uncontested years in charge, Davao's padrino claimed to have transformed the place into a bastion of order and prosperity in the troubled south. That transformation, it turns out, is overstated: from 2010 to 2015 the city had the highest murder-rate in the Philippines. Still, here was a man who cut through the political quagmire and got things done.
Lilian Abella, the next-door neighbor of the Dutertes when they first settled in Davao City, described Vicente as a “very good and humble man” who was known for being pro-poor.
Lilian, a year younger than Rody, saw glimpses of the governor in his eldest son.
She remembers the teenage Duterte as the helpful son of their influential neighbors.
A year after taking office, the populist president remains as popular as ever. Or almost. In a March Pulse Asia Poll Duterte scored a 78% approval rating — high, although Philippine presidents almost always have high approval ratings at the beginning of their terms.
As she would pass by their house on her way back home from school, he would be seated in the driveway, smoking a cigarette beside his jeep.
Then a high school student at an exclusive girl’s school, Lilian would bow her head and hide her face behind her hair, knowing Rody to be something of a bad boy.
There are no trials, so there is no evidence that the people being killed are in fact drug dealers or drug addicts. [This situation] shows the weakness of human rights institutions and discourse in the face of a popular and skilled populist leader. It is different from college students being arrested under the Marcos regime or activists being targeted under the first Aquino administration, when popular outcry was aroused. Drug dealers and drug addicts are a stigmatized group, and stigmatized groups always have difficulty gaining political support for the defense of their rights.
But inevitably, Rody would call out to her, “Day, day, day!” to which she would reply, “What is it?”
“Your mother is not home. I brought her to the hospital,” he would say, before taking another drag from his cigarette.
That was around the time Lilian’s mother started having heart problems. From then on, it was always Rody who would bring her to the hospital using his trusty jeep.
The dominant drug in the Philippines is a variant of methamphetamine called shabu. According to a 2012 United Nations report, among all the countries in East Asia, the Philippines had the highest rate of methamphetamine abuse. Estimates showed that about 2.2 percent of Filipinos between the ages of sixteen and sixty-four were using methamphetamines, and that methamphetamines and marijuana were the primary drugs of choice. In 2015, the national drug enforcement agency reported that one fifth of the barangays, the smallest administrative division in the Philippines, had evidence of drug use, drug trafficking, or drug manufacturing; in Manila, the capital, 92 percent of the barangays had yielded such evidence.
But if Rody’s populist leadership style and soft heart for the masses came from his father, his fighting spirit came from his mother Soledad or “Nanay Soleng,” said Lilian.
“Nanay Soleng was the one who really molded Rody to be the feisty character that he is now, a go-getter,” said Abella.
One of the foremost women activists and philanthropists in Davao City at the time, Soledad was the type of woman you dare not cross.
Rody, one of the few who did dare, was often the object of her ire. Infractions like coming home past his curfew or playing tricks on his siblings would land him in front of the family crucifix, staring at Jesus for hours with his arms spread out, or kneeling on monggo (mung bean) seeds.
Their strong personalities boomeranging off one another would eventually give Rody the kind of character that would make him a bull-headed leader.
“In the mayor’s character, you will see the toughness of the mother,” said Jocellyn.
If Rody’s populist leadership style and soft heart for the masses came from his father Vicente, his fighting spirit came from his mother Soledad.
Rody’s intractability was why telecommunication companies had to give in to his demand for a 911 emergency hotline for Davao City. With threats and the strength of his personality, he forced a landgrabber to chew and swallow dubious land ownership documents on national television.
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- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Duterte is an impatient man who wants high-impact results. As such, City Hall staff know that, with him, everything is urgent.
His determination to get what he wants extends to matters of the heart.
One story he likes to tell his children is how he courted his ex-wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman. He saw her at a public market and was impressed to see a beautiful mestiza in such a setting. The besotted Duterte followed her home only to encounter the fierce family guard dog at the gate.
But one year into his presidency — despite the on-paper merit of his 10-point economic plan - Professor Mark Thompson, director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at City University of Hong Kong tells TIME that Duterte has delivered almost nothing to improve the lot of impoverished Filipinos. "He had that political capital, he had that popularity, and he used it for the drug war, not for programs to help the poor," Thompson says. Philippine polling agency Social Weather Stations found that half of Filipinos considered themselves mahirap, or poor, an increase of 6% in the first quarter of 2017. That number had declined consecutively over the previous nine quarters.
Determined not to miss this chance to talk to Elizabeth, Duterte allegedly poisoned the guard dog.
In Duterte’s toughness and single-mindedness, many voters saw hope for a more disciplined citizenry and perhaps a leader with the grit to truly turn things around.
“I will do it, pero putang-ina sumunod kayo (but, mother fucker, you better follow)” he would say in his campaign speeches after raising a clenched fist.
This do-it-or-die attitude is what citizens are now counting on to fix such deep-seated problems as crime, drugs, corruption, poverty, and Metro Manila traffic.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings, raising human rights concerns, says expert John Gershman in this interview.
It’s not far-fetched to say Duterte’s unconventionality won him the seat in Malacañang.
Filipino voters love to be refreshed by the new and different, just as much as they easily tire of a mold.
Duterte is as out-of-the-box as one can be, at least, on the surface.
The fact that such a man has won the presidency challenges Filipinos’ definition of a politician and renders the already colorful national political scene in unheard-of hues.
By early December, nearly 6,000 people had been killed: about 2,100 have died in police operations and the remainder in what are called “deaths under investigation,” which is shorthand for vigilante killings. There are also claims that half a million to seven hundred thousand people have surrendered themselves to the police. More than 40,000 people have been arrested.
SPEAKING HIS MIND. Rody Duterte speaks to supporters during a campaign concert in Quezon City on April 12 when he makes the controversial comment on rape. Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler
Even his presidential campaign was “unorthodox,” spending relatively small amounts on television and radio advertisements, but going all-out on social media, thanks to his army of online supporters.
As president-elect, he continued to lengthen his string of firsts by not attending his own proclamation and by holding his inauguration separate from that of Vice President Leni Robredo.
Duterte doesn’t only like to do things his way, he loves to defy all definitions.
At one point in his life, he was known as the “governor’s son.”
But far from being the prim and proper scion, Rody was a rebel who got into fights and took 7 years to finish high school.
Jesus Dureza, Duterte’s high school friend and now incoming peace process adviser, remembers a teenage Rody who loved to intervene when there was trouble.
At the Holy Cross Academy of Digos where the two met (after Duterte was expelled from Ateneo de Davao High School), there would always be a “rambulan” (fist fight) in the evenings.
“Nakikialam ‘yun ‘pag may nanggugulo. Sa gabi, lalabas siya, hanapin niya kung sino nanggulo kagabi at aawayin niya then uwi lang siya,” said Dureza.
(He would interfere when there was someone looking for a fight At night, he would come out and look for whoever was picking a fight, then he would fight them then go home.)
Duterte doesn’t only like to do things his way, he loves to defy all definitions.
Jocellyn called her older brother “astig.” When they were teenagers, he would barge in on parties she was attending with his bodyguards in tow and demand loudly that she go home.
“Saan na ‘yung kapatid ko? Pinapauwi na ng tatay ko!” Jocellyn remembers the young Duterte shouting. (Where is my sister? My dad wants her to go home!)
The music would stop and the party would be disrupted. Jocellyn and Rody would spend the entire car-ride home fighting.
Duterte loved to do the extraordinary and unexpected.
Dureza recalled how Duterte would fly a light plane over the school parade ground while the school band was playing to show off his newly-minted pilot skills.
Those days, Duterte was smitten with a pretty canteen vendor named Pilang. Whenever he would come over to her stall to buy a Coke, he would try to grab her from behind the counter. Pilang always managed to move beyond his reach.
One Saturday, he again flew his plane over the school and even made it dive a few times.
After landing, he came over to Pilang and said in Bisaya, “If you don’t give me an answer, next Saturday I’ll be here again. I’ll make my plane dive but I’ll make it crash so we both die.”
Until now, that rebellious governor’s son continues to stretch confines and challenge expectations.
He’s a Leftist but with strongman tendencies. He’s a sexist but a mayor who has implemented some of the best pro-women policies in local government. He’s a professed stickler for the law but has advocated mass murder (though he’ll say, it was just a joke). He was Mindanao’s first choice for president, but he was Metro Manila’s first choice as well.
Davao City’s champion
But beneath that bombastic personality is a consummate politician.
Duterte has been a public official for over 20 years and he has not lost a single election in his life. He didn’t achieve that simply by being shocking (although it helped).
His first foray into public service was as a city prosecutor in the 1980s.
Retired police general Rodolfo “Boogie” Mendoza Jr, who was a lieutenant assigned in Davao in the 1970s to 1990s, described Duterte then as a “smart-ass” who “appeared to be very sure of himself.
Duterte is also supporting a range of anti-poverty programs and policies. The most recent World Bank quarterly report speaks positively about Duterte’s economic plans. The fact that he wants to work on issues of social inequality and economic inequality makes people not perceive the drug war as a war on the poor.
In 1986, after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, Duterte was appointed officer-in-charge vice-mayor by President Corazon Aquino.
The first-time local government executive was fond of visiting all the barangays, casually chatting with residents and grabbing a snack with barangay officials, much like he used to do when he was his father’s campaign substitute.
Last month, Duterte fired the head of the Dangerous Drug Board for contradicting him. Dr. Benjamin Reyes had used the figure of 1.8 million drug addicts in the Philippines based on a 2015 household survey, rather than parroting the President's claim that there are 3 or 4 million.
Veteran photojournalist Rene Lumawag first met Duterte when he was vice-mayor. The politician struck the photographer as just “an ordinary person.”
“At first, you didn’t see the iron fist. I thought he was just a traditional politician,” Lumawag told Rappler.
Veteran local journalist Vic Sumalinog thinks it was Duterte’s people skills that got him elected as mayor for the first time in 1988. His familiarity with the locals and his easy-going personality gave him the edge over his opponent Zafiro Respicio.
DAVAO'S MAN. Rodrigo Duterte takes his oath as Davao City mayor on the steps of Davao City Hall. Photo from Davao City government
Duterte’s 1988 victory as Davao City mayor would soon put to test all his cunning and people skills.
For Davao then was a no-man’s land. Communists, citizen armies, police, and military were fighting to the death in its streets. Older Davaoeños remember a time when they were too scared to leave their homes. Some were forced to migrate to other cities.
The 43-year-old mayor had one goal in mind those days: to free Davao City from armed struggle. He had one ace up his sleeve: his familiarity with Left ideology from his college days.
He was then already friends with Leftists like former NPA rebel Leoncio Evasco (who would become his chief of staff and is now incoming Cabinet Secretary) and Erasto “Nonoy” Librado, secretary-general of Kilusang Mayo Uno.
Boogie Mendoza called Duterte in those days a “strategic ally” of the Left. This alliance allowed Duterte to strike a deal with communists that they leave Davao City alone.
Duterte fears betrayal above all.
At the same time he was dealing with communists, Duterte was winning the loyalty of law enforcers like the police and military. He had institutionalized incentives for them and struck dependable friendships in which he readily assisted them with things like medical expenses.
Jocellyn credits Duterte’s easy rapport with police and military to his youthful days spent in the company of his and his father’s bodyguards. It helps that Duterte is fond of guns and motorcycles.
It was in Duterte’s mayorship that the disciplinarian in him surfaced, said Lumawag.
“Unti-unting lumilitaw na ‘yung kanyang pagkatao na, galit siya, nagtitiimbagang ‘yan kung magalit,” he said, describing Duterte’s angry look as a hardening of facial features and body stance. (Bit by bit, his anger would surface, it would gather up inside him)
Duterte was particularly vexed by injustice or arrogance.
Lumawag remembers Duterte stopping in his tracks whenever he saw a driver parked where he was not supposed to.
Duterte would grab the driver’s shirt near the waist, along with the flabs of the driver if he was on the chubby side, and whisper harshly, “Ano ba (What’s this)?”
Aboard his black pick-up truck, Duterte would also run after drivers with burning cigarettes between their fingers in order to impress upon them Davao City’s laws prohibiting smoking in public places, including the streets.
WITH THE PEOPLE. Duterte listening to a Davao City resident in his office. Photo by Davao City Government
One time, he was visited in his office by the wife of a policeman who complained that her husband was keeping his monthly salary to himself.
Duterte called the policeman in and told him, “From now on, your salary will go to your wife. Ma’am, give him some money every now and then.
Siguro common practice na talaga ang clapping of hands every SONA.
Today, Davao City is not only much safer, it’s also more vibrant and prosperous. If its many citations and awards don’t impress you, then perhaps the feeling of well-being while walking through its orderly streets will.
But the best testimonial on Duterte’s mayorship comes from Davaoeños themselves. A survey conducted by the Ateneo de Davao University from May 25-30 among Davao residents found that 99% of respondents were satisfied with Duterte’s leadership. In the May 9 elections, 96.6% of Davaoeños voted him for president.
Of course, Davao City is still far from perfect. Citizens complain of a widening gap between the rich and poor. In nearby Samal Island, foreigners are still kidnapped. Drugs and crime still taint some communities. Citizens took to the streets when Duterte allowed the construction of a coal-fired power plant. And there are the so-called Davao Death Squads, widely believed to be Duterte's extreme solution to crime, which have haunted the city's streets.
But overwhelmingly, citizens trust their local government. It’s a trust Duterte has fostered for more than two decades.
The secret Duterte
Who is the real Duterte?
Is the man we see cursing on national television and whistling at female reporters the real deal?
His close associates say it’s almost impossible to read Duterte’s public persona. Out of 10 public statements he gives, often only one is true, said someone he worked closely with in City Hall.
Duterte is skilled at evading questions he deems sensitive, hiding his real intentions through jokes or deflecting attention back to the questioner.
READING DUTERTE'S MIND. Duterte speaks at a business forum at The Manila Peninsula Hotel in April 2016. Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler
Asked by a reporter about his health during a press conference, Duterte shot back with a challenge: “If I can run on my treadmill for an hour-and-a-half, you resign from your job. I’m serious. Let’s go to my house now.”
It was far from a straightforward answer, but the reporter, after a few feeble comebacks, did not bring up the issue again.
Like any politician of the Machiavellian mold, Duterte knows all about power play and how to use situations to his advantage.
For instance, he tests the mettle of the people around him.
“He subjects people around him to random tests without them knowing that they are being tested. He wants to see how people would react and handle things given a particular situation,” shared Patmei Ruivivar, his former chief of staff for 7 years.
Duterte might even start a rumor just to conduct a loyalty check or “tempt” you with offers to see what your weaknesses are.
“Don’t worry, he will not judge you. He will only use that information in deciding where you can best be useful to him and his mission,” said Ruivivar.
Another of his City Hall associates said, in times of disagreement, he will let his companions argue it out, only for him to intervene “like a Messiah” to resolve the conflict.
He has a limited circle of people who have his ear but it’s a multi-disciplinary group that helps him digest issues like foreign affairs, the economy, and infrastructure.
To this group, he will “float” ideas and think out loud. But he spends time alone to make the final decisions.
Ruivivar described Duterte as “very self-aware.” He knows his weaknesses and is not above asking for help from people smarter than him.
But you’ll very rarely hear him utter the word “sorry” with humility. A family friend of his said he will not apologize outright but might, without warning, change his erroneous or hurtful behavior.
Ruivivar attributes his Machiavellian tendencies to the political fate of his father Vicente. Governor Duterte died a “broken-hearted man,” according to Jocellyn.
In fact, he died of a heart attack in court while hearing a case against him. At the time of his death, Vicente lost his place in the local political scene in Davao after his stint in national politics as head of General Services (today’s Interior Department) under then president Ferdinand Marcos.
He also had a falling-out with his best friend and political ally Alejandro “Landring” Almendras.
Vicente’s death affected Rody profoundly, said Jocellyn. It was then that Rody shaped up and took his law studies seriously.
The sad note with which his father’s political career ended and his sudden death that eliminated the possibility of a comeback continues to haunt Duterte to this day. It is what motivates him to keep a close eye on his people, said Ruivivar.
Duterte fears betrayal above all and will do everything in his power to preserve the people’s faith in him.
‘Mayor of the Philippines’
Davaoeños and his friends, when they hear about his most recent antic, will only sigh or chuckle and say, "That’s just the way he is."
Duterte is 71 years old, making him the oldest president this country has ever had. He’s not likely to change his ways anytime soon.
This understandably frustrates those who expect a leader to change for them, to bend to the will of the people.
But it’s this same inflexibility that attracts believers who want a leader who will do everything he can to keep his promises.
And what are these promises? Suppression of crime, drugs, and corruption in 3 to 6 months; a more prosperous Mindanao; peace with communist and Moro rebels, a federal system of government for the country; and much more.
He said, “I cannot make this country a heaven on earth but I can assure the Filipino a comfortable life.”
CRAZY CROWDS. Duterte walks through a sea of people during a sortie in Angeles, Pampanga in March 2016. Photo by Duterte-Cayetano Media Team
Duterte's governance style, based on his mayorship, is one focused on getting high-impact results. He wants things felt and experienced by the masses.
This explains the regular distributions of rice packs that take place in front of Davao City Hall. Davao City is also perhaps among the country’s cities with the most ubiquitous traffic lights.
Duterte is a leader prone to extremes and prefers system overhauls if he can get it.
In the 90s, during a conversation about irregularities in the national government, Lumawag asked the mayor what he would do about the problem if he were president.
Duterte supposedly replied, “‘Yung basket ng prutas, huwag mo lang pipili-piliin ‘yung masama. Talagang ibuhos mo.” (If you have a basket of fruits, don’t just pick out the bad ones, pour all the fruits out)
Duterte is a "consultative" leader, said barangay captain and former city councilor Angela Librado-Trinidad.
He would get weekly feedback straight from Davao citizens through his weekend show, Gikan Sa Masa, Para Sa Masa. Calls of citizens would inform policies like the city’s car speed limit, smoking ban, liquor ban, and fireworks ban.
For the business sector, he has championed anti-red-tape policies, ensuring permits are processed within a 72-hour period. His guiding principle is that government should stay out of the business sector’s way. But he has also been tough on regulating industries that impact communities and the environment such as mining.