In late April, a video showing presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte became a viral sensation in the Philippines. It showed Duterte joking that, as mayor of the city of Davao, he should have been first to rape Jacqueline Hamill, an Australian missionary who had been gang-raped and then killed in Davao in 1989. She was, he said, beautiful. The video outraged many Filipinos and made international news.
That comment could have sunk presidential campaigns anywhere. But in the Philippines in 2016, with an electorate frustrated by widespread corruption, Duterte just shrugged it off — and climbed in the polls. Now, he is the frontrunner among five candidates ahead of elections on May 9.
Duterte is a controversial figure who has risen in popularity by billing himself as an anti-establishment outsider who would upend traditional Philippine politics — an everyman who offends polite sensitivities, but is attuned to the frustrations of people deeply disaffected with politicians they view as more interested in enriching themselves than addressing the needs of Filipinos. That's helped propel him to 33 percent in polling released last week, ahead of Mar Roxas, supported by the current administration, with 22 percent.
It would be easy to compare him with another presidential candidate who has risen to the top of the polls by saying outrageous things, Donald Trump. But not even the American tycoon can match Duterte for the shock value of his statements. Trump, for example, never threatened to personally kill anybody. Duterte had no problem doing that.
During a rally on May 1, 2016, the mayor of Davao rambled affably into a microphone, dropping lines like, "They must stop fucking the Filipino," which was met with cheers from the people gathered at Lawton Plaza, in the capital Manila.
Teodoro Cañete, a 34-year-old construction worker waving a Philippine flag and carrying a picture of Duterte, was among those cheering. "I believe he can change the government," he said. "He can get rid of crime, theft, drugs and corruption."
Duterte, 71, is known for talking straight. The Lawton Plaza rally was no exception: during his speech, he called opponent Roxas "a son of bitch," made fart jokes, and insisted that, unlike most politicians, he wasn't going to steal money. "I'm not into that," he said, "I prefer girls." In a recent speech to business leaders, he defended his womanizing by talking about his penis.
Davao, the city he has run for more than 20 years, is famously disciplined, and Duterte is running on the promise of bringing Davao-style law and order to the rest of the country. According to Human Rights Watch, however, the order in Davao has come at a high cost. Death squads meting out extra-judicial punishment to suspected criminals and drug dealers have killed at least 1,000 people, including children. At least 12 of those people were killed in cases of mistaken identity.
Duterte has admitted to endorsing the Davao death squads and even to killing people himself. He's even said that as president, he would pardon himself. In a televised interview last year, he warned criminals that "I will really kill you ... that 1,000 will become 100,000 and I will fatten the fish in Manila Bay. That's where I will throw your bodies."
His presidential campaign's logo is a large fist coming right at you, in the colors of the Philippine flag. That approach, and the talk of brute force in the service of restoring civic order, resonates with many Filipinos. According to the Philippine National Police, between 2014 and 2015, crimes plummeted 60 percent in Manila — but skyrocketed by 46 percent nationally.
"I don't want children growing up in an environment saturated with drugs, criminality, injustice and deprivation," said Isabelita Padua, a 52-year-old public school teacher. "He has the political will. He has the courage to implement his ideas."
At a Duterte rally in Manila, May 2016. The t-shirts say "Courage and devotion" in Tagalog. Photo by Aurora Almendral/VICE News
On paper, the country is not doing bad economically. Current president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III is overseeing a period of stability and rising prosperity, with the Philippines posting consistently high economic growth rates and increasing foreign investment. But poverty rates have remained stubbornly high;25 percent of Filipinos fall below the official poverty line, and fully half self-identify as poor.
"The only people who can feel the economic growth are the rich," said Sesinando Erispe, 45, a taxi driver. "We poor people, we don't feel that. We're having a harder time."
"Duterte is basically a protest vote," political analyst Ramon Casiple said. "He's a reaction to the failed promises and expectations of the Aquino administration in terms of inclusive growth."
"There's been a palpable impact in terms of traffic, crime and even corruption, on the average life of the Filipino. There were such high expectations on the Aquino administration," Casiple added. "The backlash is Duterte."
That backlash may be making financial markets uneasy. Over the past year, as Duterte climbed in the polls, the benchmark index on the Philippines Stock Exchange fell 10 percent; bond risk rose, and the peso fell versus the dollar, after he became the frontrunner. The economy isn't Duterte's strong suit; his message is mostly about law and order.
His tough-guy talk on that subject may be a liability, as well. Erispe, the taxi driver, is put off by Duterte's speeches, particularly regarding Hamill's rape and murder, as well as a comment he made calling Pope Francis a "son of a bitch" for causing traffic jams during his January 2015 visit. The Philippines is one of the world's most devoutly Catholic nations, with the third-highest total number of Catholics, and bad-mouthing the pope is not a good idea.
Duterte has also threatened to cut ties with Australia and the United States, the country's biggest ally and a key partner in the face of a rising China, the Philippines' rival in a series of territorial disputes that have led to tense confrontations. He's also said he would dissolve Congress should it get in the way of his plans.
"I'm afraid martial law will fall into the hands of Duterte," says Erispe, referring to the period in from 1965 to 1986 when the Philippines was under the Marcos dictatorship.
The business community is wary, as well. According to a report by intelligence firm Teneo, "the Makati Business Club, the most influential business group in the country, argued against his election" — something that could be a problem for Duterte, because the club "was heavily involved in the political movement to oust two previous presidents: Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001."
Even among people who tell pollsters they are for him, support may vanish as voters reel from his outrageous style.
"If someone asks, I always say I'm for Duterte," Erispe said, "but I'm not really decided. I won't be sure who I'm voting for until May 9."
Follow Aurora Almendral on Twitter: @auroraalmendral