A Philippine mayor nicknamed “The Punisher” because of his admitted links to “death squads” has shaken up the country’s 2016 election by officially entering the race for president.
Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao in the southern island of Mindanao, filed his certificate of candidacy on Friday to challenge President Benigno Aquino’s annointed successor Manuel Roxas III, a grandson of another former president.
Other major candidates include Vice President Jejomar Binay, who has been accused of corruption in the past, and current frontrunner Senator Grace Poe. Aquino is barred from seeking re-election as president.
News of Duterte’s decision, which analysts say could propel him to power but also reverse the country’s democratic progress, lit up Philippine social media on Friday.
Supporters called it a “game-changer,” but critics hit back by questioning his human rights record.
As recently as last October, in an interview with Philippine-based news website Rappler, Duterte said that he has no qualms about killing “criminals,” saying they have “no redeeming factor”.
In May, Duterte told a local station in Davao that while he does not covet the presidency, “criminals” better watch out if he is elected.
“I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay,” he said.
For several months, the tough-talking mayor, who frequently talks in expletive-laden language, remained coy about his candidacy. But in recent days he took aim at leading candidate Poe, questioning her loyalty to the Philippines as a former US citizen.
On Thursday, he got a boost following a survey showing he is leading his rivals in the capital Manila. As a politician coming from the south, he has been perceived to have weak support from the north.
Dan Mariano, a Manila-based political analyst and columnist, told Al Jazeera that one of the biggest “fears” of many Filipinos is criminality, and Duterte’s record as a crime-busting mayor of the largest city in the Philippines appeals to voters.
None of Duterte’s rivals has offered a clear platform to deal with crime, making his presidency even “more appealing,” Mariano said.
But the drawback is that if Duterte gets elected, human rights would be relegated to the back burner, he added.
“I have been warning my friends, who are looking forward to a Duterte presidency, be careful what you wish for. I’ve seen this all before,” said Mariano, a victim of human rights abuses during the rule of Ferdinand Marcos that ended in 1986.
Duterte has the right to run for president, but voters should carefully scrutinise his record before supporting him, said Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch in the Philippines.
“His bluster about killing people are all consistent with his rhetoric as mayor of Davao,” he told Al Jazeera.
“This same rhetoric has, we believe, encouraged the unlawful targeting of hundreds of people in that place since the 1990s,” he said, adding that victims included children.
“Encouraging people to extrajudicially murder other people is a clear manifestation of human rights abuse,” Conde told Al Jazeera. “To us this is high unconscionable.”
While Duterte’s brand of politics may be “refreshing” to voters, Duterte’s popularity “is a product of a breakdown of law and order” in the country, and the national government’s failure to address the problems”, Conde added.
“Ultimately, the public needs to look at him from the human rights perspective, and ask themselves, do we really want this guy to just one day barge into our homes without due process and kill us, just because somebody said that we are drug pushers, or we are criminals?”
Despite the criticism, Teng Magdamo, a native of Davao now living in Manila, said she is supporting Duterte because he is “genuine and straightforward,” and that he has been effective as mayor of Davao.
Duterte has been mayor for seven terms, presiding in total for more than 22 years. He has also served as vice-mayor and congressman in the city.
“He’s a very hands-on public servant. Anyone can just come up to him, with an issue and he will listen and he gets the ball rolling,” she told Al Jazeera.
“You may not get the resolution you want to your problem, but you come away with the sense that someone paid attention and at the very least tried to resolve it.”
She also said that she is not concerned with the allegations of human rights violations against the mayor, adding that there is no proof that he was directly involved in those killings.
‘Dirty Harry’ image
Now that he has formally declared his intention to run for president, Duterte could siphon support from the frontrunner Poe, who is facing a legal challenge because of her citizenship, according to Inday Espina-Varona, a journalist covering politics for the leading multimedia company ABS-CBN.
From upper-class voters to ordinary taxi drivers, potential voters are drawn to Duterte not just because of his “tough anti-crime platform,” but also because people see him “as basically free of corruption,” Espina-Varona told Al Jazeera.
“It’s not strange for people who feel vulnerable to latch on to a ‘Dirty Harry’ like Duterte,” added Espina-Varona, whose recent reporting also made her a target of threats.
“The funny thing is, Duterte’s followers insist that I, other journalists and all ‘good people,’ have nothing to fear because he only goes after ‘bad’ people. But that’s a slippery slope.”
For Myrish Antonio, a Filipino human rights lawyer who works at the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, Duterte’s political philosophy that “it is better to be feared, than to be loved” is no longer relevant in the Philippines, especially after the experience of Marcos’ rule.
“There is a reason why our forefathers have fought hard for the freedom we now enjoy. To take away basic, indivisible, inherent human rights from citizens is not what government is for,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I believe today’s Filipinos are more aware, more informed, more discerning of leaders.”
Antonio said she also doubts if Duterte can win the presidency, because he has no strong political machinery to deliver the votes.
She also criticised him for taking too long to make a decision to run saying: “If he really wanted so bad to run, what took him so long to decide?
“Indecisiveness is not a good mark of a leader, who prides himself of having an iron hand.”
The general election is scheduled to take place on May 9, 2016.