New Philippines President Duterte Has a History of Controversy

Despite cursing the Pope and mocking a murdered missionary, the foul-mouthed mayor of the city of Davao now will lead the Philippines.

Rodrigo Duterte (red shirt), the newly elected president of the Philippines, speaking at Manila’s Rizal Park on May 7, 2016.
Rodrigo Duterte (red shirt), the newly elected president of the Philippines, speaking at Manila’s Rizal Park on May 7, 2016. (photo: Simon Roughneen)

MANILA, Philippines — When Pope Francis visited the Philippines in 2015, he was greeted with the adulation you would expect in what is one of the world’s most distinctively and devoutly Catholic countries — but not that way by the person who was elected this week as the nation’s new president.

An estimated 6 million people turned out in the steaming tropical rain to hear the Pope say Mass in Manila’s Rizal Park, with hundreds of thousands more lining the city’s streets to catch a glimpse of the papal motorcade and maybe even receive a fleeting blessing from the outgoing Argentinian.

However, there was one man who was not impressed by the pageantry, or even by the Pope, it seems. Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao, the biggest city in the southern Philippines, was caught for hours in Manila’s infamously clogged traffic — the jam made worse by the huge throng in town to see Pope Francis.

Duterte, famously abrupt and blunt, let his frustration get the better of him and called Pope Francis “a son of a b****” — or “son of a whore,” depending on the translation — remarks that predictably earned the mayor the scorn of Church leaders in the Philippines, home to around 80 million Catholics.

Received wisdom would suggest the outburst meant the end for the now-71-year-old’s political career. But on May 9, Duterte was elected president of the Philippines with almost 40% of the vote — a landslide that saw him win almost twice as many votes as the second- and third-place contenders combined. 

Despite Duterte’s slur against the Pope and, worse again, a campaign speech in which he said — supposedly in jest or anger — that he should have been first to rape Jacqueline Hamill, a Australian Pentecostalist missionary who was gang-raped and murdered during a 1989 prison riot in Davao — the foul-mouthed mayor romped to victory.

After victory, the president-elect is feeling penitent, saying he wants to travel to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis in one of his first overseas trips after he takes office. Earlier this week, Duterte’s spokesman, Peter Lavina, said, “The mayor repeatedly said he wants to visit the Vatican, win or lose, not only to pay homage to the Pope, but he really needs to explain to the Pope and ask for forgiveness.”


The Catholic Bishops

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines did not endorse or reject candidates, but advised the 54-million-strong electorate to vote with their consciences.

In a statement sent to the Register, CBCP spokesman Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan did not address Duterte directly, commenting, “To those who have been voted to office, we assure them of our prayers, principally for wisdom, that they may discern God’s will for his people and courageously do as he bids. God’s hand is to be recognized in the events of history. Credit, then, your victory, neither to fame nor popularity, but to God, who calls you to service and to care for the weakest and the most distressed in our midst.” 

As mayor of Davao, Duterte oversaw the cleanup of a once dangerous and chaotic city, personally taking part in extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals — a bullet-in-the-head approach he has pledged to bring to Manila as president. Before the election, Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, based in Duterte’s bailiwick in Mindanao, implied that Duterte propagated a “culture of death” and criticized the mayor for his bragging about extramarital affairs and use of Viagra. 

But sidestepping rule-of-law norms earned Duterte the respect and support of millions of Filipinos frustrated at the failings of establishment politicians in a country where an estimated 70% of elected lawmakers are members of political dynasties — wealthy elites who keep local and national congressional seats in the family for generations. 

At campaign rallies all over the 7,500-island, 100-million-population archipelago, Duterte caustically mocked these privileged politicians, promising to punish corrupt legislators and to spread prosperity — if it comes to the Philippines— around the country and end the domination of “imperial Manila,” the sprawling capital. 

In his final campaign rally on May 7, Duterte drew around half a million people to the same park where the Pope said Mass, only a fraction of the attendance for that event, but more than all the other presidential candidates — who held their own final rallies at the same time — put together. 

“He understands the culture; he knows how to talk to the ordinary people,” said Jose Villega, one of the vast crowd that clapped, roared and laughed during Duterte’s 90-minute stump speech on May 7. 

“It is just words; it is not deep,” said Sarah Vargas, another in the crowd, asked about whether Duterte’s description of the rape and murder of Jacqueline Hamill meant the Davao mayor was not suitable for office.


Bread-and-Butter Issues

Instead, Filipinos are concerned about bread-and-butter issues. In the 1990s and 2000s, the country’s stalling economy and chaotic politics earned it the moniker “the sick man of Asia” — an unwelcome contrast with neighbors such as Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand, where prosperity was rising.

The election of Benigno Aquino as president in 2010 changed things for the better for the Philippines, and by 2012, the Asian nation was seeing 6%-plus annual economic growth and, for the educated at least, a rare chance to find jobs at home.

A colossal exodus of Filipinos has led to emigration all over the world, often in search of menial work as home help and catering staff, with around 10 million Filipinos living overseas and sending home around $25 billion a year in remittances to impoverished family members.

“It has not filtered down to us,” said Lourdes Tupaz, a Filipina emigrant in Kuala Lumpur, discussing the impact of the Philippines’ recent economic success.

On the eve of the election, President Aquino compared Duterte to Adolf Hitler, calling on the other candidates to unite against the voluble mayor and to continue the policies Aquino himself had implemented.

But it appears impatient voters could not wait for the country’s economic growth to “trickle down,” opting instead for Duterte, a self-described “socialist,” who nonetheless won the confidence of investors during his 22 years as mayor of Davao, and his radical plans to shake up politics in the Philippines. 


Simon Roughneen filed this report from Manila with additional reporting from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.