MANILA: To his critics, Rodrigo Duterte is a foul-mouthed, serial adulterer fixated on killing criminals. But the millions who voted for the new Philippine leader see him an anti-establishment hero.
Duterte, 71, was sworn in on Thursday as the 16th president of the Philippines after a controversial but wildly successful election campaign dominated by his vows to kill tens of thousands of criminals and tirades against the nation’s elite.
He became the oldest president of the Southeast Asian nation of 100 million people and the first from Mindanao, an impoverished and conflict-plagued region that makes up the southern third of the country.
Duterte rose to the nation’s top job after spending most of the past two decades as mayor of Davao, the biggest city in Mindanao, earning a reputation as a ruthless leader willing to forsake human rights to enforce law-and-order.
A lawyer and former city prosecutor, Duterte is accused of links to vigilante death squads that rights groups say killed more than 1,000 people in Davao — accusations he has variously accepted and denied.
Aided by bucketloads of charisma, Duterte was undoubtedly a hugely popular leader of Davao, where many of the city’s nearly two million residents welcomed his authoritarian touch in helping to deliver relative peace and economic prosperity.
To win last month’s elections, Duterte promised to roll out his style of governance across the rest of the country. He vowed to end crime within six months, at one point saying 100,000 people would be killed.
In an era where populist politicians are on the rise around the world, Duterte also shrewdly capitalized on his image as a man-of-the people with no tolerance for the nation’s political and business elite.
“When I become president, by the grace of God, I serve the people, not you,” Duterte told reporters in the final stages of the election campaign, referring to the elite.
“Shit. My problem is the people at the bottom of society… my problem is how to place food on the table.”
In a nation where roughly a quarter of the population live below the poverty line — barely changed despite six years of stellar economic growth under outgoing leader Benigno Aquino — his disdain for the wealthy proved a huge vote winner.
Duterte’s man-of-the poor image was burnished by his disdain for formal clothes, his preference for eating food with his hands and living in a simple home in Davao.
The father-of-four’s incessant swearing and admissions on the campaign trail to being a serial adulterer, with two mistresses kept in cheap boarding houses in Davao, seemed to add to his aura of authenticity.
Other controversial campaign comments — such as calling Pope Francis a “son of a whore” and joking that he wanted to rape an Australian missionary who was sexually assaulted and killed in a Davao prison riot — failed to stop his sensational rise.
Nevertheless, Duterte is in many respects a traditional politician.
He is related to powerful clans from the central Philippines and his father was an influential politician, serving for three years as a cabinet secretary in Ferdinand Marcos’s 1960s government before the nation was plunged into dictatorship in 1972.
In Davao, Duterte has created his own political dynasty, with his daughter taking over from his as mayor and his son as vice mayor.
And since winning the election, Duterte has highlighted his close relationship with the Marcos family.
Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, were accused of overseeing widespread human rights abuses and plundering $10 billion from state coffers during the strongman’s rule, which ended with a famous “People Power” uprising in 1986.
Duterte has in recent weeks said he will finally allow the late dictator to be buried at the national hero’s cemetery in Manila.
Many Filipinos have no doubt that Duterte is the right man to instill discipline in society, after three decades of chaotic and corruption-plagued democracy that has condemned tens of millions to deep poverty. AFP