Profile: Rodrigo Duterte to take helm in Philippines

Mayor known as “The Punisher” to become the 16th president, promising to get rid of drug pushers and corrupt officials.

Rodrigo Duterte, a city mayor popularly known as “The Punisher”, is set to become the 16th president of the Philippines, riding high on a populist agenda and a promise to get rid of crime and corruption. 

Duterte, who easily won an election last May, is to serve a six-year term starting on Thursday.

He will inherit from President Benigno Aquino a mixed bag – solid economic gains, a dysfunctional bureaucracy tainted with corruption, and unfinished talks with both Muslim and communist rebels. 

At 71, Duterte is the oldest person to ever assume the presidency. He is also the first candidate from the southern island of Mindanao to win the post.

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He was propelled into the presidency with huge social media support, and his presidential inauguration will be the world’s first to be broadcast on Facebook Live. 

Duterte is an advocate of federalism, which he has said could prove the solution to ending a Muslim rebellion in the country’s south. He is also in initial talks with leaders of a communist rebel group. 

A lawyer and former prosecutor, Duterte earned the ire of human rights groups during the campaign when he admitted to having killed suspected criminals. After his victory he also promised to give cash rewards to citizens who have shot and killed drug dealers.

Despite many controversies, Duterte’s loyalists have stuck with him, pinning their hopes and dreams on a southern mayor who has never held a national position.

Still, his outbursts against local media and statements about women have left many scratching their heads.

“Given the sheer quantity of his statements, and the dizzying trajectory of his outbursts, it is often difficult to pin him down,” Richard Javad Heydarian, political analyst and professor at De La Salle University in Manila, told Al Jazeera.

“Duterte is one of those bolt-from-the-blue populists who could spell either salvation or disaster.”

‘Team of rivals’

After a rough start post-election, when he was panned for saying that some journalists were legitimate targets for assassination, and that the former leader Ferdinand Marcos deserved a hero’s burial, Duterte recently gained praise for his cabinet appointees.  

Among his cabinet members are prominent women, including an anti-mining activist and environmentalist as well as a top-rank economist and educator. 

Duterte won the presidency with a plurality of the electorate, receiving more than 16 million votes during the May 9 election [EPA]
Duterte won the presidency with a plurality of the electorate, receiving more than 16 million votes during the May 9 election [EPA]

A self-proclaimed leftist, Duterte also appointed people seen as “progressives” to top labour and land reform positions.

Heydarian said the appointments showed that Duterte was serious about getting things done, as he did when mayor of Davao.

“His cabinet selection is a curious ‘team of rivals’,” Heydarian said. “He clearly is a man who means his words and dedicates himself to achieving goals he sets upon himself.”

Duterte, however, broke with tradition by refusing to give a post to Vice President-elect Leni Robredo, who is from a rival party. Robredo narrowly defeated Duterte’s preferred candidate, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.     

As someone who ran on an anti-corruption platform, Duterte has also been criticised for saying he would release former President Gloria Arroyo, who is in jail facing multiple corruption charges. Arroyo is a Duterte ally.  

‘Auspicious start’

But it is in the areas of media freedom and anti-drug and corruption campaigning that he faces the closest scrutiny. 

After facing off with journalists following his victory, Duterte has decided to bar them from his inauguration at the Malacanang Palace. Only state television will be allowed to cover the ceremony live. 

On Wednesday, journalists came together to draw attention to what they called the incoming president’s “disturbing messages” on the media. 

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“Regrettably, the conversation between President-elect Rodrigo Duterte and the news media has turned sharp and shrill,” the editorial said.  

Duterte has also repeatedly locked horns with human rights groups, calling them “stupid” for questioning his all-out war on drugs.

“When you kill someone, rape, you should die,” he said on Monday, at a farewell event with local staff in Davao. 

During the campaign, Duterte promised to do everything he could to solve the country’s drug problem within the first three to six months of his presidency. 

During Duterte’s time of more than two decades as mayor of Davao, the New York-based Human Rights Watch group reported that an estimated 1,000 people were killed by armed vigilantes known as the Davao Death Squad (DDS).

Duterte has denied any links to the group. But during the campaign, some of his supporters referred to themselves as DDS, to mean “Duterte Diehard Supporters”.  

Heydarian said it was “extremely important” for Duterte to advance his anti-crime agenda “within the boundaries of law and to respect the country’s long tradition of democratic freedoms.”

For now, with the majority of Congress and his supporters behind him, as well as a chance to shape the Supreme Court, Duterte’s ascent to power looks unstoppable. 

“The key to his success is not to overreact and intelligently deploy his political capital for much-needed reforms within the boundaries of constitution,” Heydarian said.

Source: Al Jazeera