Rodrigo Duterte

Rody Duterte: The man, the mayor, the president

Pia Ranada

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Rody Duterte: The man, the mayor, the president
Can Rodrigo Roa Duterte lead the nation towards promised change?

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“Ikaw ang pangulo para sa pagbabago… Sawa na ang bayan ko sa magnanakaw na tao.”

(You are the president for change… My country is tired of people who steal.)

These are the first lines of folk musician Freddie Aguilar’s song for President-elect Rodrigo Duterte. It plays inside Duterte’s pick-up truck one night in Davao City after one of his post-elections late-night press conferences.

The campaign season, the time when this song could be heard everywhere, is over. Duterte has won the presidential elections by a landslide with 16.6 million votes, the first such victory for a Mindanaoan.

But Duterte can’t seem to let this song go. A few days later, he plays it again in the middle of another press briefing. He asks for silence. What are his marching orders for his Cabinet? Just listen to this song, he says.

As it plays, Duterte, alone in the table in front, rests his head upon his hands.

To hear this song is to be transported back to his Miting de Avance in Luneta on May 7.

That night, some 600,000 people filled the park. A giant flag was passed around as Duterte clutched a smaller flag to his chest and, with tears in his eyes, declared, “It will be only one Filipino nation.”

To hear this song is to be reminded that Duterte has become a symbol.

To his supporters, he is the catalyst for change. He is the anger vote against the supposedly blundering Aquino administration. He holds the torch for Mindanao and Visayas against “imperial Manila.” He is the strong leader with a soft heart. He is the ordinary man against the oligarchs, the crime-fighter, the benevolent dictator, the savior. 

Supporters of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte react during the ‘miting de avance’ in Manila, Philippines, May 7, 2016. Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA


The adoration of his supporters is matched only by the revulsion of his critics. To them, he is a threat to democracy, a sexist punk, a man for whom nothing is holy. He is the cold-blooded murderer whose respect for human rights is a self-admitted cop-out. He is a symbol, not so much of hope, as of despair, the vote of people so jaded they can no longer tell good change from bad.

Duterte is about to take on an even more symbolic role. On June 30, his oath-taking as the 16th president of the Philippines will make him the father of the country, the first Mindanaoan president, the man at the helm of a nation leaving behind “Daang Matuwid” territory.

But symbols don’t lead countries. Fallible men do. Duterte is every inch as flawed as the next man, as he so often reminds us.

So who is this man they call Rody Duterte?

The Bisaya

A map of how all regions in the country voted last May 9 shows Duterte won in most of Mindanao and in major regions in the Visayas like Cebu (53% of all votes) and Bohol (49.5%). 

Anyone who followed him around as he campaigned in these regions won’t be surprised by this turn-out.

Duterte bewitched these regions with his naughty humor, infectious anger, irresistible promise of “true” change, and most importantly, the durable roots that tie him to their people.

Duterte branded himself as the Bisaya and the Mindanaoan rolled into one and he could do this credibly because of his parents.

His father Vicente comes from Danao, Cebu, and his mother Soledad is a Maranao born in Agusan del Norte.

Representative of millions of Filipinos, the Duterte family were migrants. Vicente moved his family from Cebu to Southern Leyte before finally settling in Davao.

Rody himself was born in Maasin, Southern Leyte and stayed there until he was around 6 years old. He still recalls the smell of copra roasting in the sun as he and his friends passed by fields aboard open-air trucks.

Aside from bequeathing Rody with multi-rootedness, his parents gave him his first experience of politics and public service.

When the Cebuano Vicente decided to run for governor of the undivided Davao, he gave his 18-year-old son Rody the task of accompanying him during his campaign sorties all over the province.

Rody took his first step in the campaign trail, going from barangay to barangay talking to people from all walks of life.

“He was talking to the barangays already at the time. It was his job to deliver whatever it is, or anything that has to do with the elections,” said Jocellyn Duterte, Rody’s youngest sister who was another of their father’s campaign companions.

Vicente’s succeeding terms as governor increased Rody’s exposure to public service and the life of a politician.

Those days, the Duterte home on Talisay Street was an “open house,” shared Jocellyn. She remembers waking up in the morning to see long lines of people at the front door waiting to speak to her father.

“They would be asking for a job or money to help bury a dead relative. Those days, we were face to face with the masses,” she said.

“Can you embrace the poor and the sick?” This question, Duterte claims, has guided him throughout his life in politics.

These long lines of people would be replicated decades later in the lines that form every night outside Duterte’s own office in Davao City Hall where he personally listened to concerns of the supplicants – from excessive electric bills to cases of domestic violence.

Duterte admitted during one episode of his weekend television show, Gikan sa Mara, Para sa Masa, that his father, upon hearing his son considering a career in politics, posed a question to him: “Can you embrace the poor and the sick?”

This question, Duterte claims, has guided him throughout his life in politics.

Lilian Abella, the next-door neighbor of the Dutertes when they first settled in Davao City, described Vicente as a “very good and humble man” who was known for being pro-poor.

Lilian, a year younger than Rody, saw glimpses of the governor in his eldest son.

She remembers the teenage Duterte as the helpful son of their influential neighbors.

As she would pass by their house on her way back home from school, he would be seated in the driveway, smoking a cigarette beside his jeep.

Then a high school student at an exclusive girl’s school, Lilian would bow her head and hide her face behind her hair, knowing Rody to be something of a bad boy.

But inevitably, Rody would call out to her, “Day, day, day!” to which she would reply, “What is it?”

“Your mother is not home. I brought her to the hospital,” he would say, before taking another drag from his cigarette.

That was around the time Lilian’s mother started having heart problems. From then on, it was always Rody who would bring her to the hospital using his trusty jeep.

But if Rody’s populist leadership style and soft heart for the masses came from his father, his fighting spirit came from his mother Soledad or “Nanay Soleng,” said Lilian.

“Nanay Soleng was the one who really molded Rody to be the feisty character that he is now, a go-getter,” said Abella.

One of the foremost women activists and philanthropists in Davao City at the time, Soledad was the type of woman you dare not cross.

Rody, one of the few who did dare, was often the object of her ire. Infractions like coming home past his curfew or playing tricks on his siblings would land him in front of the family crucifix, staring at Jesus for hours with his arms spread out, or kneeling on monggo (mung bean) seeds. (READ: Rody Duterte: The rebellious son, the prankster brother)

Their strong personalities boomeranging off one another would eventually give Rody the kind of character that would make him a bull-headed leader.

“In the mayor’s character, you will see the toughness of the mother,” said Jocellyn.

If Rody’s populist leadership style and soft heart for the masses came from his father Vicente, his fighting spirit came from his mother Soledad.

Rody’s intractability was why telecommunication companies had to give in to his demand for a 911 emergency hotline for Davao City. With threats and the strength of his personality, he forced a landgrabber to chew and swallow dubious land ownership documents on national television.

Duterte is an impatient man who wants high-impact results. As such, City Hall staff know that, with him, everything is urgent. 

His determination to get what he wants extends to matters of the heart.

One story he likes to tell his children is how he courted his ex-wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman. He saw her at a public market and was impressed to see a beautiful mestiza in such a setting. The besotted Duterte followed her home only to encounter the fierce family guard dog at the gate. 

Determined not to miss this chance to talk to Elizabeth, Duterte allegedly poisoned the guard dog.

In Duterte’s toughness and single-mindedness, many voters saw hope for a more disciplined citizenry and perhaps a leader with the grit to truly turn things around.

“I will do it, pero putang-ina sumunod kayo (but, mother fucker, you better follow)” he would say in his campaign speeches after raising a clenched fist.

This do-it-or-die attitude is what citizens are now counting on to fix such deep-seated problems as crime, drugs, corruption, poverty, and Metro Manila traffic.

Defying definition

It’s not far-fetched to say Duterte’s unconventionality won him the seat in Malacañang. 

Filipino voters love to be refreshed by the new and different, just as much as they easily tire of a mold. 

Duterte is as out-of-the-box as one can be, at least, on the surface. 

He has committed what would normally be considered political suicide, from cursing a beloved Pope to admitting womanizing tendencies, to giving lighthearted accounts of rape – except he survived all these “blunders.”

The fact that such a man has won the presidency challenges Filipinos’ definition of a politician and renders the already colorful national political scene in unheard-of hues.

SPEAKING HIS MIND. Rody Duterte speaks to supporters during a campaign concert in Quezon City on April 12 when he makes the controversial comment on rape. Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler


Even his presidential campaign was “unorthodox,” spending relatively small amounts on television and radio advertisements, but going all-out on social media, thanks to his army of online supporters.

As president-elect, he continued to lengthen his string of firsts by not attending his own proclamation and by holding his inauguration separate from that of Vice President Leni Robredo.

Duterte doesn’t only like to do things his way, he loves to defy all definitions.

At one point in his life, he was known as the “governor’s son.”

But far from being the prim and proper scion, Rody was a rebel who got into fights and took 7 years to finish high school. 

Jesus Dureza, Duterte’s high school friend and now incoming peace process adviser, remembers a teenage Rody who loved to intervene when there was trouble.

At the Holy Cross Academy of Digos where the two met (after Duterte was expelled from Ateneo de Davao High School), there would always be a “rambulan” (fist fight) in the evenings. 

Nakikialam ‘yun ‘pag may nanggugulo. Sa gabi, lalabas siya, hanapin niya kung sino nanggulo kagabi at aawayin niya then uwi lang siya,” said Dureza.

(He would interfere when there was someone looking for a fight. At night, he would come out and look for whoever was picking a fight, then he would fight them then go home.)

Duterte doesn’t only like to do things his way, he loves to defy all definitions.

Jocellyn called her older brother “astig.” When they were teenagers, he would barge in on parties she was attending with his bodyguards in tow and demand loudly that she go home. 

Saan na ‘yung kapatid ko? Pinapauwi na ng tatay ko!” Jocellyn remembers the young Duterte shouting. (Where is my sister? My dad wants her to go home!)

The music would stop and the party would be disrupted. Jocellyn and Rody would spend the entire car-ride home fighting.

Duterte loved to do the extraordinary and unexpected.

Dureza recalled how Duterte would fly a light plane over the school parade ground while the school band was playing to show off his newly-minted pilot skills.

Those days, Duterte was smitten with a pretty canteen vendor named Pilang. Whenever he would come over to her stall to buy a Coke, he would try to grab her from behind the counter. Pilang always managed to move beyond his reach.

One Saturday, he again flew his plane over the school and even made it dive a few times.

After landing, he came over to Pilang and said in Bisaya, “If you don’t give me an answer, next Saturday I’ll be here again. I’ll make my plane dive but I’ll make it crash so we both die.”

Until now, that rebellious governor’s son continues to stretch confines and challenge expectations.

He’s a Leftist but with strongman tendencies. He’s a sexist but a mayor who has implemented some of the best pro-women policies in local government. He’s a professed stickler for the law but has advocated mass murder (though he’ll say, it was just a joke). He was Mindanao’s first choice for president, but he was Metro Manila’s first choice as well.

Davao City’s champion

But beneath that bombastic personality is a consummate politician.

Duterte has been a public official for over 20 years and he has not lost a single election in his life. He didn’t achieve that simply by being shocking (although it helped).

His first foray into public service was as a city prosecutor in the 1980s. 

Retired police general Rodolfo “Boogie” Mendoza Jr, who was a lieutenant assigned in Davao in the 1970s to 1990s, described Duterte then as a “smart-ass” who “appeared to be very sure of himself.”

In 1986, after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, Duterte was appointed officer-in-charge vice-mayor by President Corazon Aquino. 

The first-time local government executive was fond of visiting all the barangays, casually chatting with residents and grabbing a snack with barangay officials, much like he used to do when he was his father’s campaign substitute.

Veteran photojournalist Rene Lumawag first met Duterte when he was vice-mayor. The politician struck the photographer as just “an ordinary person.”

“At first, you didn’t see the iron fist. I thought he was just a traditional politician,” Lumawag told Rappler.

Veteran local journalist Vic Sumalinog thinks it was Duterte’s people skills that got him elected as mayor for the first time in 1988. His familiarity with the locals and his easy-going personality gave him the edge over his opponent Zafiro Respicio.

DAVAO'S MAN. Rodrigo Duterte takes his oath as Davao City mayor on the steps of Davao City Hall. Photo from Davao City government

Duterte’s 1988 victory as Davao City mayor would soon put to test all his cunning and people skills.

For Davao then was a no-man’s land. Communists, citizen armies, police, and military were fighting to the death in its streets. Older Davaoeños remember a time when they were too scared to leave their homes. Some were forced to migrate to other cities.

The 43-year-old mayor had one goal in mind those days: to free Davao City from armed struggle. He had one ace up his sleeve: his familiarity with Left ideology from his college days. 

He was then already friends with Leftists like former NPA rebel Leoncio Evasco (who would become his chief of staff and is now incoming Cabinet Secretary) and Erasto “Nonoy” Librado, secretary-general of Kilusang Mayo Uno.

Boogie Mendoza called Duterte in those days a “strategic ally” of the Left. This alliance allowed Duterte to strike a deal with communists that they leave Davao City alone.

Duterte fears betrayal above all.

At the same time he was dealing with communists, Duterte was winning the loyalty of law enforcers like the police and military. He had institutionalized incentives for them and struck dependable friendships in which he readily assisted them with things like medical expenses. (READ: Dissecting and weighing Duterte’s anti-crime strategy)

Jocellyn credits Duterte’s easy rapport with police and military to his youthful days spent in the company of his and his father’s bodyguards. It helps that Duterte is fond of guns and motorcycles.

It was in Duterte’s mayorship that the disciplinarian in him surfaced, said Lumawag.

Unti-unting lumilitaw na ‘yung kanyang pagkatao na, galit siya, nagtitiimbagang ‘yan kung magalit,” he said, describing Duterte’s angry look as a hardening of facial features and body stance. (Bit by bit, his anger would surface, it would gather up inside him.)

Duterte was particularly vexed by injustice or arrogance. 

Lumawag remembers Duterte stopping in his tracks whenever he saw a driver parked where he was not supposed to.

Duterte would grab the driver’s shirt near the waist, along with the flabs of the driver if he was on the chubby side, and whisper harshly, “Ano ba (What’s this)?”

Aboard his black pick-up truck, Duterte would also run after drivers with burning cigarettes between their fingers in order to impress upon them Davao City’s laws prohibiting smoking in public places, including the streets.

WITH THE PEOPLE. Duterte listening to a Davao City resident in his office. Photo by Davao City Government

One time, he was visited in his office by the wife of a policeman who complained that her husband was keeping his monthly salary to himself.

Duterte called the policeman in and told him, “From now on, your salary will go to your wife. Ma’am, give him some money every now and then.”

Today, Davao City is not only much safer, it’s also more vibrant and prosperous. If its many citations and awards don’t impress you, then perhaps the feeling of well-being while walking through its orderly streets will.

But the best testimonial on Duterte’s mayorship comes from Davaoeños themselves. A survey conducted by the Ateneo de Davao University from May 25-30 among Davao residents found that 99% of respondents were satisfied with Duterte’s leadership. In the May 9 elections, 96.6% of Davaoeños voted him for president.

Of course, Davao City is still far from perfect. Citizens complain of a widening gap between the rich and poor. In nearby Samal Island, foreigners are still kidnapped. Drugs and crime still taint some communities. Citizens took to the streets when Duterte allowed the construction of a coal-fired power plant. And there are the so-called Davao Death Squads, widely believed to be Duterte’s extreme solution to crime, which have haunted the city’s streets.

But overwhelmingly, citizens trust their local government. It’s a trust Duterte has fostered for more than two decades. 

The secret Duterte

Who is the real Duterte? 

Is the man we see cursing on national television and whistling at female reporters the real deal? 

His close associates say it’s almost impossible to read Duterte’s public persona. Out of 10 public statements he gives, often only one is true, said someone he worked closely with in City Hall.

Duterte is skilled at evading questions he deems sensitive, hiding his real intentions through jokes or deflecting attention back to the questioner.

READING DUTERTE'S MIND. Duterte speaks at a business forum at The Manila Peninsula Hotel in April 2016. Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

Asked by a reporter about his health during a press conference, Duterte shot back with a challenge: “If I can run on my treadmill for an hour-and-a-half, you resign from your job. I’m serious. Let’s go to my house now.”

It was far from a straightforward answer, but the reporter, after a few feeble comebacks, did not bring up the issue again.

Like any politician of the Machiavellian mold, Duterte knows all about power play and how to use situations to his advantage.

For instance, he tests the mettle of the people around him.

“He subjects people around him to random tests without them knowing that they are being tested. He wants to see how people would react and handle things given a particular situation,” shared Patmei Ruivivar, his former chief of staff for 7 years.

Duterte might even start a rumor just to conduct a loyalty check or “tempt” you with offers to see what your weaknesses are. (READ: 4 lessons about Rodrigo Duterte, the boss)

“Don’t worry, he will not judge you. He will only use that information in deciding where you can best be useful to him and his mission,” said Ruivivar.

Another of his City Hall associates said, in times of disagreement, he will let his companions argue it out, only for him to intervene “like a Messiah” to resolve the conflict.

He has a limited circle of people who have his ear but it’s a multi-disciplinary group that helps him digest issues like foreign affairs, the economy, and infrastructure.

To this group, he will “float” ideas and think out loud. But he spends time alone to make the final decisions.

Ruivivar described Duterte as “very self-aware.” He knows his weaknesses and is not above asking for help from people smarter than him.

But you’ll very rarely hear him utter the word “sorry” with humility. A family friend of his said he will not apologize outright but might, without warning, change his erroneous or hurtful behavior.

Ruivivar attributes his Machiavellian tendencies to the political fate of his father Vicente. Governor Duterte died a “broken-hearted man,” according to Jocellyn.

In fact, he died of a heart attack in court while hearing a case against him. At the time of his death, Vicente lost his place in the local political scene in Davao after his stint in national politics as head of General Services (today’s Interior Department) under then president Ferdinand Marcos.

He also had a falling-out with his best friend and political ally Alejandro “Landring” Almendras.

Vicente’s death affected Rody profoundly, said Jocellyn. It was then that Rody shaped up and took his law studies seriously.

The sad note with which his father’s political career ended and his sudden death that eliminated the possibility of a comeback continues to haunt Duterte to this day. It is what motivates him to keep a close eye on his people, said Ruivivar. 

Duterte fears betrayal above all and will do everything in his power to preserve the people’s faith in him.

‘Mayor of the Philippines’

Davaoeños and his friends, when they hear about his most recent antic, will only sigh or chuckle and say, “That’s just the way he is.”

Duterte is 71 years old, making him the oldest president this country has ever had. He’s not likely to change his ways anytime soon.

This understandably frustrates those who expect a leader to change for them, to bend to the will of the people.

But it’s this same inflexibility that attracts believers who want a leader who will do everything he can to keep his promises. 

And what are these promises? Suppression of crime, drugs, and corruption in 3 to 6 months; a more prosperous Mindanao; peace with communist and Moro rebels, a federal system of government for the country; and much more.

He said, “I cannot make this country a heaven on earth but I can assure the Filipino a comfortable life.”

CRAZY CROWDS. Duterte walks through a sea of people during a sortie in Angeles, Pampanga in March 2016. Photo by Duterte-Cayetano Media Team


Duterte’s governance style, based on his mayorship, is one focused on getting high-impact results. He wants things felt and experienced by the masses.

This explains the regular distributions of rice packs that take place in front of Davao City Hall. Davao City is also perhaps among the country’s cities with the most ubiquitous traffic lights.

Duterte is a leader prone to extremes and prefers system overhauls if he can get it.

In the 90s, during a conversation about irregularities in the national government, Lumawag asked the mayor what he would do about the problem if he were president.

Duterte supposedly replied, “‘Yung basket ng prutas, huwag mo lang pipili-piliin ‘yung masama. Talagang ibuhos mo.” (If you have a basket of fruits, don’t just pick out the bad ones, pour all the fruits out.)

Duterte is a “consultative” leader, said barangay captain and former city councilor Angela Librado-Trinidad.

He would get weekly feedback straight from Davao citizens through his weekend show, Gikan Sa Masa, Para Sa Masa. Calls of citizens would inform policies like the city’s car speed limit, smoking ban, liquor ban, and fireworks ban.

For the business sector, he has championed anti-red-tape policies, ensuring permits are processed within a 72-hour period. His guiding principle is that government should stay out of the business sector’s way. But he has also been tough on regulating industries that impact communities and the environment such as mining.

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As the next Philippine president, Duterte has his work cut out for him.

The complicated bureaucracy that comes with national government will pose a challenge to his quick-fix attitude, although he is already finding ways to circumvent this with requests for “emergency powers” over transportation, for example.

In Davao City, he could count on his loyal councilors to pass ordinances he needed. Lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives may not be as obliging. 

Then there is the sheer complexity of running a country of over 100 million people distributed over more than 7,000 islands facing a panoply of problems from poverty to climate change.

There is the added burden of being a head of state or the country’s representative on the global stage, a position he has had little practice for.

He has already gotten his fingers singed with his bad experience with the media whom he has criticized for “slanting” his statements. (READ: Duterte’s ‘enemy’: Jun Pala)

But this is just part of the challenge that comes with running a much bigger and less yielding democracy than Davao City.

In the next 6 years, who will Duterte prove right? His critics or his supporters? Perhaps he’ll do what he does best and take everyone by surprise. –

In this file photo, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte (C) speaks to supporters during the ‘miting de avance’ in Manila, Philippines, May 7, 2016. Jhay Chavez/EPA

Top photo: Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte speaking to supporters during a rally in Manila, Philippines, May 7, 2016. Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA 

Pia Ranada, reporter | Charles Salazar, Jeff Digma, production specialistsChay F. Hofileña, editor | KD Suarez, Dominic Tuazon, design | Alecs Ongcal, European Pressphoto Agency, Duterte-Cayetano Media Team, Davao City Government, photos


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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.