Kill the criminals! Duterte's vote-winning vow in Philippines

Karl Malakunas, Agence France-Presse

Kill the criminals! Duterte's vote-winning vow in Philippines 1
Mayor Rodrigo Duterte answers questions from the press. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

LINGAYEN, Philippines – Rodrigo Duterte curses the pope's mother and jokes about his own infidelities, but many voters in the Philippines want to elect him president so he can honour a campaign pledge to kill thousands of criminals.

Duterte is making a spectacular, obscenity-filled charge towards the presidential palace by selling himself as a ruthless leader willing to bypass the judicial system in an unprecedented war against crime.

"Kill them all," Duterte, 70, told a cheering crowd of supporters this month at a campaign rally in the small northern city of Lingayen as he outlined his plans to eradicate drug traffickers.

"When I become president, I'll order the police and the military to find these people and kill them."

Such comments are typical fare on the campaign trail for Duterte, who in Lingayen also jokingly gave business advice to those in the crowd to start up funeral parlours in preparation of him winning the May elections.

"The funeral parlours will be packed... I'll supply the dead bodies," he said, to more cheers and laughter.

On a previous occasion Duterte, a lawyer, pledged to kill 100,000 criminals and dump so many in Manila Bay that the "fish will grow fat" from feeding on them.

Duterte admits links to Davao Death Squad

Political courage

Surveys indicate his law-and-order platform, which is a centrepiece of his election strategy, is winning him many fans in a nation bedevilled by crime, corrupt law enforcement agencies and deep poverty.

The long-time mayor of the major southern city of Davao is one of four candidates with a genuine shot at succeeding President Benigno Aquino.

And he is gaining popularity, climbing into second place just four percentage points behind Senator Grace Poe, according to the latest survey by Pulse Asia released this week.

"Duterte is really a phenomenon. I like what he is saying," Clarita Carlos, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines, told AFP.

"I like the fact that he has fire in his belly and he is politically courageous."

His unique form of political courage has extended to insulting Pope Francis, who is revered by many in a nation where 80 percent of the population are Catholics.

In a speech to launch his presidential bid late last year, Duterte described the pope as a "son of a bitch" for causing traffic jams when he visited the Philippines.

Duterte under fire for cursing Pope Francis

Duterte, who is in a long-term relationship with a woman after having his first marriage annulled, also admitted then to having two girlfriends.

However Duterte jokingly assured taxpayers they would not foot his mistresses' bills, explaining he only spent 1,500 pesos ($32) a month on their boarding room rent and saved money by taking them to short-time hotels.

Carlos said voters were willing to ignore his indiscretions as they focused on his track record in Davao, a formerly crime-plagued city that Duterte says he transformed into one of the nation's most peaceful.

"Never mind he cusses a lot, he is a womanizer. I don't think that will intrude into his effectiveness as a political leader," she said.

Duterte also maintains a frugal lifestyle, in contrast with many corrupt Filipino politicians who use the powers of office to enrich themselves.

Death squad fears

Human rights campaigners are not enthusiastic about a Duterte presidency, warning he has the track record to back up his rhetoric.

They accuse Duterte of organizing or tolerating vigilante squads that have targeted suspected criminals and street children in Davao, killing more than 1,000 people since the 1980s.

For many years Duterte denied the existence of death squads, which were allegedly made up of local policemen, ex-communist rebels and hired assassins.

But Duterte has in recent months said he was involved in them and that rights groups had in fact underestimated the number of people to have been killed.

"They miscalculated... 1,700," Duterte told reporters in December.

That law enforcement agencies have failed to pursue allegations against Duterte is not surprising, according to Philippine Human Rights Commission chairman Chito Gascon.

Gascon told AFP this was part of the nation's "culture of impunity", where politicians and powerful figures often get away with crimes. Other politicians are also accused of running death squads.

Voters are attracted to Duterte's promise of a quick fix to such fundamental justice problems, according to Gascon and other rights campaigners.

"He is popular because he taps into this extreme disappointment in criminality and the inability of the government to deal with it," Carlos Conde, a Manila-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, told AFP.

After losing four sons in Davao to what she and human rights groups believe were the death squads, 62-year-old Clarita Alia is urging voters to beware of short cuts.

"I hope they think really hard because if they vote for the wrong person the killings will not stop," Alia, who lives in one of the city's bleakest slums, said after she visited her sons' graves.