Philippines: The contradictions of Rodrigo Duterte

Expected president’s persona as a gun-loving, motorcycle-riding womaniser with a death squad is only part of the story.

Presidential candidate Rodrigo "Digong" Duterte talks to the media before casting his vote at a polling precinct for national elections at Daniel Aguinaldo National High School in Davao
Rodrigo 'Digong' Duterte talks to the media before casting his vote [Erik De Castro/Reuters]

It was evident hours after the polls closed that Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte would be the next president of the Philippines. By 9pm, the votes he received equalled the sum of those cast for his two closest opponents.

The tough-talking mayor joined political allies on Monday night at a victory dinner before taking a pilgrimage to his parents’ grave at 3am – where he broke down crying, whimpering for his mama to guide him.

It was a vulnerability that contrasts with the 71-year-old Duterte’s public persona as a gun-loving, motorcycle-riding womaniser.

He is only human, after all.

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“It’s consistent with his message of healing and national unity to show the human [side] in him,” political analyst Ramon Casiple told Al Jazeera. “He did say he will be prim and proper, as the presidency requires. This is it.”

Duterte is not known for following protocol or niceties.

His survey ratings were on a steady rise until he shared his thoughts on the rape and murder of Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill, then 36.

“The mayor should’ve gotten to her first,” Duterte said as he narrated the incident in an expletive-riddled campaign speech.

He was unapologetic for the remark despite the outrage it stirred, just as he was unrepentant for cussing at Pope Francis and the monstrous traffic caused by his 2015 visit.

“Cussing, I think, is already part of his vocabulary. But I don’t think there’s meat or flesh to every cuss word that he spews,” said campaign volunteer Jeffrey Tupas, a former journalist. 

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Tupas, 38, acknowledged that his boss is an alpha male full of contradictions. He is intimidating but a gentleman; a toughie who sponsored a centre for cancer-stricken children. He is intolerant of criminals, but annually throws a Christmas bash for the city’s prostitutes.

A private and bookish person, Duterte nevertheless frequents a local piano bar where he serenades friends with favourites such as MacArthur Park and Send in the Clowns.

“He is hard to explain as he is unpredictable,” Tupas said, noting those close to him have learned to read subtle signs when their principal is tired, angry, or when he wants to go home to sleep.

One taxi driver and supporter blamed Duterte’s seemingly belligerent language on the mayor’s inadequate grasp of Tagalog, the predominantly spoken dialect on the island of Luzon, where the seat of government and economy and the largest media agencies are based.

“[Duterte] hired a friend of mine to give him a massage one time, and she swears he was very polite and gentle, unlike what we see of him on TV,” the driver said.

Duterte lived as a boy in his father’s home town in Cebu in the central Philippines, where people spoke another dialect. When Duterte was six, his father – who later became governor of Davao – moved the young family to southern Davao City where Bisaya was also spoken. 

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A lawyer by profession, Duterte joined the city prosecution office in 1977. After the 1986 People Power revolt, he was assigned as officer-in-charge of the city after his own mother declined the post.

He successfully contested the post for mayor in 1986 and, since then, has basically ruled the city under what might be described as a benevolent dictatorship. In those three decades, Davao City was transformed from a gangland to the fourth safest city in the region.

Civic worker Ayrie Ching said, years ago, that people migrated to Cotabato City – the heartland of the Muslim insurgency – because they thought it was safer than Davao.

I like living in Davao, but it’s something I am able to say with a bit of discomfort – because I’m aware of my privilege … I’m not a drug addict,” said Ching, 28.

She was referring to allegations that Duterte had practically sanctioned the murder of hundreds of drug peddlers by the so-called Davao Death Squad (DDS), a paramilitary group serving as the city’s shadow police force.


Duterte helped fuel these rumours by boasting he’d killed as many as 1,700 people and pronounced that he kept his beloved city safe by butchering all criminals.

“Ultimately, my human rights background was what hindered me from voting for him,” Ching said. “I know in one way or another about the stories of the DDS and how Duterte plays into the whole thing.”

Tupas dismissed Duterte’s links to the DDS as fiction, but confirmed that the mayor drives a cab at night and prowls the city’s streets trying to catch robbers preying on taxi drivers or pedestrians.

Walking around Davao City at night is safer than in Metro Manila or Cotabato City at any time of day, he said.

It is that promise of a safer city that made many gravitate towards Duterte.

“The one thing that attracted Filipinos to agree with Duterte was that he promised quick action, cutting corners, setting aside democratic rules, even the rule of law in order to address these specific daily concerns,” Casiple explained.

His record in Davao is a showcase of what Duterte promised the rest of the country.

This early – official election results are expected in two weeks’ time – Duterte’s camp said he could apply on a nationwide basis city ordinances such as a 1am liquor ban and a 10pm curfew for minors as initial measures to address criminality.

He also promised to abolish Congress and to rewrite the Constitution. But Casiple said Duterte the president may not necessarily toe the line of Duterte the candidate.

“Campaign requirements are different from requirements when you are president,” he said.


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Source: Al Jazeera