In a parched field in northern Philippines, a helicopter hovers over a sea of people.

Defying hunger and a three-hour wait, teenagers and grown men scream to welcome the mayor of a city a thousand miles away. Out emerges the man raising the symbol of his unorthodox presidential candidacy: an iron fist.

Rodrigo Duterte, 71, became infamous as mayor of the southern city of Davao in 2002 when Time magazine branded him as "The Punisher".

The lawyer supposedly behind a death squad is now the front-runner to lead Southeast Asia's oldest democracy.

While investors fear a strongman, Filipinos mob the rare politician who gets things done.

"If I promise to kill you, I will really kill you," thunders the Donald Trump-like blunt-talking politician. "Drug dealers, give me a reason to keep you alive, you son of a b*tch!"

Cheers of "idol" greet Duterte's simple but chilling platform to suppress crime by killing criminals in six months.

In an April survey by pollster Pulse Asia, he edged out four other contenders to succeed President Benigno Aquino in a nation of 100 million.

The uproar over his recent joke about raping a murdered Australian missionary did not even make a dent in his popularity.

Thirty years after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines may elect another authoritarian ruler on May 9.

The phenomenal rise of the Filipino Dirty Harry reflects pent-up frustration with elite politics and a sluggish justice system that marred freedom's return.

Garbageman of Davao 

In a predominantly Catholic country where landed families grip power, Duterte is the iconoclast.

The gun collector and big-bike lover cursed Pope Francis, promotes Viagra and admits to having two wives and two girlfriends.

Yet the self-styled leftist lives in a low-cost subdivision, and pours city funds into treatment for children with cancer.

A man of contradiction, Duterte is the son of a governor loyal to Marcos, and a civic leader against martial rule.

Expelled from high school, the naughty boy was exiled to a nearby town only to join fistfights. He even flew a Piper Cub to impress a girl.


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It was during the turbulent dictatorship years that Duterte came of age as prosecutor.

Pursuing cases against insurgents and soldiers alike, he worked with a damaged judiciary.

"I saw how they perverted the system," he recalls in campaign hustings. "Even a rapist could walk free if the motherf*cking fiscal was corrupt!" 

The once idealistic lawyer turned things around in 1988 when he became mayor of the country's killing fields.

A hotbed of communism, Davao was a bloodbath between rebels and security forces. The violent Agdao district earned the moniker "Nicaragdao".

Davao's transformation into one of Asia's most habitable cities is synonymous to Duterte.

In the conflict-torn island of Mindanao, the commercial hub of 1.4 million is now a peaceful haven.

On spotless highways, signs remind tourists of speeding and smoking bans.

Cops are everywhere, allowing passengers of iconic jeepneys to use smartphones without fear. Ambulances are on the go in the only Asian city with a 911 response system.

Watching over it all in a command centre aptly called "Eye of the Mayor" is Duterte.

How did he do it? Duterte's compadre Manny Pinol told Al Jazeera that the mayor decided early on in his 22-year rule to secure Davao "beyond what was legal or normal.

"To Duterte, a leader is a garbageman. He cleans up the dregs of society so others will live in a clean community. For every problem, there is always a solution, even if it's controversial."

Raw nerve of injustice     

Controversy taints the success story at the crux of Duterte's campaign.

The UN and rights watchdogs point to his tolerance of a vigilante group killing petty criminals in cold blood.

Duterte announced names of suspected criminals on TV, and some of them ended up dead.

Calling criminals a "legitimate target of assassination”, he would admit ties to the death squad only to backtrack and say it is “hyperbole".

Priest Amado Picardal shakes his head. The former spokesperson of Davao's Coalition Against Summary Execution told Al Jazeera that from 1998 to 2015, the death squad killed 1,424, of whom 132 were minors. 

"This is mass murder," Picardal said. "Extrajudicial killings are the centrepiece of Duterte's anti-crime drive. Some say it's just bravado but the bodies I've seen are not hyperbole. I met mothers who lost sons."

One such mother is Clarita Alia. A feisty woman who eked out a living selling vegetables in a crime-infested market, she is the face of death-squad victims.

She blames Duterte for the successive murders of her four sons aged 14 to 18. 

"My sons were accused of sniffing Rugby [sniffing glue] and stealing cellphones but I made them undergo rehab. Why were they killed? It's not true when he says Davao is peaceful because criminals are gone. How about those killers? Aren't they criminals, too?"

A mother's sobs are drowned out by chants of Duterte's name on the campaign trail.

A survey by the renowned Ateneo de Davao University shows that more than half of residents think the death squad is "OK", while 98 percent are satisfied with the mayor. Nationwide polls depict Duterte as the candidate who can solve criminality, corruption and illegal drugs.

From celebrities, taxi drivers and migrant workers, spontaneous support fuels the bid of the only local politician running a national campaign without machinery. Why?


READ MORE: Outcry as Filipino presidential nominee admits killings


Chito Gascon, head of the human rights commission, said Duterte's vow to strike fear of the law in criminals attracts Filipinos fed up with slow justice and weak law enforcement.

He cites as an example the still-unresolved 2009 massacre of 58 people, the Philippines' worst election-related violence.

"Impunity creates a raw nerve in the public psyche. There's a sense of injustice. Everyone gets away with murder. To some, the solution is to cut corners. But it's counterintuitive to solve injustice by perpetuating more injustice."

Duterte retorts: File the case.

The irony is that the very impunity the mayor rails against allows him to vie for power. 

Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the government lacks resolve to prosecute Duterte.

"His ascent is one of those rare occurrences where a politician of national stature unapologetically erodes human rights," said Conde, a former journalist who tracked the death squad. "He's the parasite feeding into the broken criminal justice system, making political capital out of it." 

Peace mediator?     

Not all activists see Duterte as a murderer. Some are his staunchest defenders. The man who loathes criminals sympathises with revolutionaries, believing that "you cannot kill an idea". 

Duterte presents himself as the best bet to end one of Asia's longest-running communist insurgencies, and to revive a stalled peace process with Muslim rebels.

He proposes changing the unitary government into a federal system to develop neglected regions.

A shrewd politico, the mayor allied with people of all political stripes to lead a diverse city of Christians, Muslims and indigenous people. He climbs mountains to mediate with Maoist rebels, and designates deputies for Muslim representation. 

Jesus Dureza, former presidential peace adviser, believes his schoolmate will fast-track talks crucial to stop the spread of terrorism in the southern Philippines.

"He has a deep understanding of cultural and religious nuances. He is quick to comprehend what to do in a crisis situation," Dureza said.

This inclusive approach draws marginalised sectors to Duterte. In an oddity, leading his campaign is a former rebel priest.

"It is only Duterte who has a constituency that is a microcosm of society," said Jun Evasco.

"He always sides with the oppressed. People long for a strongman with a heart, not somebody with no empathy for poor people."

'Hijacked revolution'  

President Aquino led the Philippines to become one of Asia's fastest-growing economies.

The son of democracy icons might see Duterte take his place, with Marcos scion Ferdinand Jr as vice president, based on the latest polls.

Walden Bello, a Philippine sociologist and a former congressman, says the uncanny scenario has to do with the outcome of the 1986 EDSA revolution which toppled the elder Marcos, and installed Aquino's mother in power.

"Duterte embodies frustration with the institutions of the EDSA system," he says.

"There is a strong perception that politics has been hijacked by the elites. There's been no major structural change."

While Aquino touts credit rating upgrades, one out of four Filipinos still lives in poverty.

Dynasties make up two-thirds of Congress. Commuters endure traffic jams and train breakdowns.

Passengers fear extortion by airport personnel putting bullets in their luggage.

With a slogan of "real change", Duterte is the protest choice, spawn of an oligarchy shocked by his surge.

In a nation where the candidate with the best narrative wins elections, Duterte's rants against an elite establishment form a powerful message. But his disregard for rights and processes is one the Philippines has heard before.

"People want a strong leader but don't understand that a strong leader concentrates power," said Gascon, the rights body chairman.

"We had a strong leader in Marcos. He said he was going to make the country great again, free it from corruption and violence. That didn't happen. It just manifested itself in new forms."

After a string of traditional politicians, Duterte calls himself the last card. Whether he's an ace or a joker, the future of Philippine democracy is at stake in the gamble.

Ayee Macaraig is a journalist based in Manila, Philippines, covering politics and governance in Southeast Asia.

Source: Al Jazeera