Part 1 of 3
DAVAO CITY, Philippines – If 70-year-old Rodrigo Duterte became President of the Philippines, he would work to make 3 things happen. He counted them on the fingers of one hand: “I would stop corruption, stop criminality, and fix government,” he said forcefully.
Here’s what makes him different: he’s willing to kill to make that happen.
“When I said I’ll stop criminality, I’ll stop criminality,” said one of the Philippines’ longest serving mayors. “If I have to kill you, I’ll kill you. Personally.”
I held his gaze to see if he meant what he said. He did. His track record proves it.
In public office since the people power revolt in 1986, he ran and won as mayor of Davao City in 1988 until he hit his 3-term limit in 1998. He then ran for the House of Representatives and represented the 1st District of Davao City. He was elected to his 4th term as mayor in Davao in 2001 and reelected again in 2004 and 2007. Hitting his term limit a second time, he ran as vice mayor to his daughter until he received a new mandate as mayor in 2013.
In terms of land mass, Davao is the world’s largest city, and Duterte’s leadership helped transform it from the chaos of the 1980’s – a safe haven for criminals and rebels – to what residents now proclaim as an oasis of peace today. IBM proudly announces that Davao is the first "smart city" in the Philippines, integrating technology and big data from public services for a real-time dashboard to better deal with crime prevention, emergency response, threat prevention & response and traffic management.
City officials boast that it’s one of only 3 areas in the world to have an Integrated Emergency Response System 911 (with Canada and parts of the US) that works and brings help within minutes.
There is tremendous respect and admiration for Duterte in Davao, where a movement that gathered millions of signatures – far more than its one-a-half million people - is pushing him to run for president in the 2016 elections.
Although he missed the deadline to file his candidacy, a technicality could allow him to still run. He says he has until December 10, 2015 to decide.
Contradiction 1: Breaking the law
Brusque but charming and confident, Duterte is a man of contradictions, starting with his insistence on maintaining the rule of law while at the same time being equally adamant about breaking the law to bring order.
Refreshingly and brutally frank, Duterte spelled everything out in our interview on October 22, 2015: “I had to act decisively. Let me just say there were things which I had to do because I had to do them. Nobody was going to do it for Davao City.”
“Like what,” I asked.
“Like the ones that people are crying about until now.”
“You’re talking human rights?” I asked. Duterte’s been implicated in extrajudicial killings and linked to what’s been called the Davao Death Squad, a vigilante group that many believe was responsible for the presumed deaths of more than 700 people who disappeared between 2005 and 2008.
“Yes, of course,” he answered. “It’s a public record that cases have been filed against me, and they say that my name was even in the High Commission of the Human Rights Commission of the United States. Well, that’s part of a day’s work, I would say.”
“Any regrets?” I followed up.
“None. None. If I will return to the original day then I would still do it because that’s the only way that I could keep the peace in Davao and how it could develop into what you see now.”
Contradiction 2: Are all killers equal?
Not all killers are equal and motives matter, giving some insight into why he has at the very least supported extrajudicial killings. Duterte makes a distinction between criminals and rebels, proudly saying that he “belongs to the Left.”
“They’re two different things,” he said. “One is for pocket, and the other one is ideology. Here is a rebel, and they’re fighting as a matter of principle. And here are idiots – the criminals. Because they line their pockets for gain. Personal gain. There’s no redeeming factor in killing people, robbing them, raping them.”
He reiterated he has no qualms about killing these killers and goes a step further.
“I must admit I have killed,” said Davao’s mayor, who said he is willing to do it to protect his people.
To understand Duterte’s appeal to Filipino voters, understand the context: that institutions are weak at best and law and order is patchy in many parts of the country. Violence is part of the political landscape, and it gets worse during elections.
The worst election-related violence in the world happened in the Philippines in November, 2009, when 58 people were killed, including the largest number of journalists killed in one instance.
For the 2010 presidential elections, the police say 155 people died, including 22 assassinated candidates.
Duterte said the way to stop the violence is to use violence, establish a rule of law, and change the overall political system.
He says it’s time to turn an oligarchic system run by the political elite upside down and act on the gap between the rich and the poor.
“Ayan, yang cliché na iyan: the poor is getting poorer; the rich is getting richer. They utter it every election. Every candidate. Why don’t you just do it? Just shut up, and just do it.
“Would you be able to do it?” I asked.
“I will,” he answered.
His supporters believe him because of what he did in Davao. They say his words mirror his actions. They point to his humble lifestyle and home, signs they add, that he is not corrupt.
Critics respond that there is a huge difference between running a city and running a country.
Contradiction 3: Leftist and dictator
The self-confessed leftist admits he is a dictator. It’s clear he has a vision for the country and that he built it on his lessons learned as Davao’s leader.
The Philippines under Duterte’s leadership would be a dictatorship because “if you become the president, you do not only change leaders, you have to change the Filipino himself.”
“Kasi ang Filipino ngayon, hindi mo masabihan na obey the law.” Duterte changes his tone (Today, you can't even tell the Filipino to obey the law). “Sabihin mo sa kanya, THIS is the law. Putang ina, pag hindi mo sinunod ang batas, putang ina ka sa akin.” (You ought to tell him: This is the law. You'd be damned if you did not follow the law, you'd be damned.)
Curses and expletives peppered his answers. Duterte is nothing but authentic. His years in power made him aware of what he wanted to say on the record and what he told us off the record – with a caveat that when the proper time came, we could release his insights. His honesty was refreshing.
He said that one of his first steps to eliminating corruption would to be to drop discretionary funds like the Priority Development Assistance Fund, known as the pork barrel. As president, he would only take his salary and would expect Congress to do the same. If lawmakers try to impeach him, he said he would not hesitate to shut it down.
“It’s going to be a dictatorship,” he added. “It’s the police and the military who will be the backbone. If they agree with you – if the right-thinking policemen and military men agree with you – then after 6 years, there will be a new set-up: maybe a federal type, less corruption, and a fresh air for the next generation.”
Could any of the presidential candidates – Vice President Jejomar Binay, former Secretary Mar Roxas, Senator Grace Poe and Senator Miriam Santiago – change the political structures in the Philippines?
“Anybody of them, you will still suffer,” he quickly answered before qualifying his statement. “I’m not saying they cannot hack it. What I’m saying is … I don’t know whether they can do what I said I could do.”
There are other interesting contradictions.
Contradiction 4: Womanizer and women's rights advocate
A known womanizer, Duterte has also funded and supports women’s rights. A lead activist for gender equality, Irene Santiago, says he has done much to empower women in Davao. Santiago gained global prominence as a key organizer of the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995, personally thanked by Hillary Clinton on the main stage.
Duterte supported the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill through the years it languished in Congress, pushing family planning and population control in his area of influence. In 2012, while Congress and the Church debated RH, Davao City was already giving out free contraceptives.
Contradiction 5: Sexist and gay rights supporter
Although he openly admits he’s a male chauvinist often shown in his sometimes sexist remarks, he put in place progressive policies, supporting and funding LGBT activists. He also supports gay marriage.
These positions remain controversial in Asia's largest Catholic nation - roughly 85% Christian, most Roman Catholic. In the early years, it took courage to stand up to the Church, which lobbied hard against reproductive health and sex education. Outside the Vatican, the Philippines is the only other place where divorce is illegal.
Contradiction 6: Decisive and indecisive about the presidency
Perhaps the biggest contradiction of the moment is how such a decisive man could be so indecisive about running for the Philippines’ top job.
He gave the reasons of family, health, funding and machinery – each of which he explained and then debunked as standing in his way. Sources close to Duterte say he’s still grappling with campaign funds, which he denied. Critics say #duterteserye, what many have called his back and forth, is a carefully planned tactic. While there may be some truth to that, the time we spent with him showed the reason may be more personal.
For someone concerned about legacy, what would happen if he tried and failed? For someone whose pride borders on arrogance, what if his lifelong lessons on leadership aren’t enough?
What seems clear is that he isn’t willing to settle, even if it means he is assassinated, which if he succeeds, he added, is a distinct possibility.
“I’m telling the Filipino people, huwag ako. It’s going to be bloody,” he said. “Because I will not sit there as President and just like any other regime, sabihin ko, iyan lang ang kaya ko … pero pag nilagay ninyo ako, do not fuck with me.”
The fact that there is a real clamor for Duterte shows more about the Philippines today than it does about the man.
There is a zeitgeist for change, a real yearning to stop corruption (which helped get Aquino elected in 2010), and a sizeable youth vote. At latest estimates, Comelec puts that to about 39 million potential voters.
For the Philippines' 100 million people with a median age of 22 years old, 2016 may herald the first social media elections. Up to 46 million Filipinos are on Facebook alone. With such a crowded field of presidential candidates, it's expected to take less than 20 million votes to win.
For Filipinos looking for an alternative to the status quo, someone with a track record of governance, someone who has courage and vision, Duterte seems to offer a possibility of real change.
Two questions remain: will he risk it and run? And will Comelec allow him to?
He says December 10 is his new deadline.
“If I’m there, wala ng indecisive, indecisive,” he said. “Putang ina, sumunod kayong lahat. When I say that you have to stop fucking the people’s money, stop it!” – Rappler.com
TUESDAY'S DUTERTE EXCERPTS
Duterte on human rights: I'm saving lives
Duterte: I must admit I have killed
Question to Duterte: Can you translate local to national?
Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.