MANILA – On a sunny February morning in San Fernando City, former police and corrections chief Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa faced thousands of Pampangueños and said he once learned that the best way to master their dialect is to kiss a Kapampangan woman.
This was how the burly former top cop, known for his playful wit and unfailing charisma, launched his campaign to become a senator - traits he may well bring to the upper chamber in case he wins in the May polls.
It is his first shot at an elective post and, it appears, he is coming on strong.
Critics have called him many names. For media personality Ramon Tulfo, he is a "clown." For detained Sen. Leila de Lima, he is “more of a mascot than a professional” who is a better fit in a carnival than in the Senate.
But Dela Rosa is unfazed.
“Okay lang kung iyan ang pagtingin nila sa akin. Bakit, masama ba maging clown? Kasi standard kasi siguro nila ng pagiging public servant eh seryoso, nakasimangot palagi. Baka 'yun ang standard nila, eh sorry,” Dela Rosa told ABS-CBN News.
(It’s fine if that’s how they see me. Why? Is it wrong to be a clown? Maybe their standard of being a public servant is someone who always looks serious and frowns all the time.)
“Hindi ko kailangan ‘yan pilitin. That’s me. Natural ko lang iyan. Mahirap maging masyadong seryoso. Maaga tayong mamatay niyan. Dapat masaya ka palagi.”
(I don’t have to force things. This is my natural self. It’s bad to be so serious. We will die young. We should always be happy.)
And, it seems, Dela Rosa has nothing to worry about. Besides, his campaign rests largely on sturdy support from the President, whose popularity has endured testing times in his administration.
Save for former special assistant to the President Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, Duterte's long-time aide, Dela Rosa perhaps enjoys the biggest support from the President, having worked with him since the 1980s.
“Sa katagal-tagal naming magkasama, pareho na kami ng frequency, pareho na kami ng pag-iisip. Wala akong ‘di nagustuhan sa kaniyang pamamalakad. Aprub ako sa lahat. Sa akin perpekto siya. He’s the best leader in the world,” Dela Rosa said of Duterte, under whom he worked as chief of police when the latter was Davao city mayor.
(We’ve been together for so long that we are now of the same frequency. We also think alike. There’s nothing that I did not like about his governance. I approve of them all. For me, he’s perfect. He’s the best leader in the world.)
“There’s no Bato without Digong. Siya ang gumawa sa akin. From the start ng aking career, gina-guide niya ako kung paanong maging magaling na pulis… Mananalo ba ako kung walang suporta ni Presidente? Definitely not.”
(There’s no Bato without Digong. He made me. When I was just starting my career, he guided me on how to become a good cop… Will I win without the support of the President? Definitely not.)
Dela Rosa has wielded a magnetic persona in his public life, at one time jovial and comical, at another serious, and yet another time, emotional.
Throughout his nearly two-year stint as Philippine National Police chief, arguably the most crucial post in his long-time boss President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, Dela Rosa drew criticism not only for the thousands of deaths linked to the campaign, but also for how he responded to issues.
Just over a month after being appointed PNP chief, and with the war on drugs gaining momentum, Dela Rosa told drug users to burn down the homes of drug peddlers.
He also cried twice in Senate hearings-- something unheard of in the long line of PNP chiefs – as he struggled to defend the police following the slay of a drug-linked mayor while under police custody, and a teenage boy from the slums.
Dela Rosa’s “charm,” as his supporters would describe it, could be shielding him from the negative image conjured by the drug war he had led, a political analyst said.
“Iyung quirks, they help him…That helps him be more approachable, human. Sometimes voters prize that more than anything,” said University of the Philippines political science professor Aries Arugay.
But Arugay warned that Dela Rosa should eventually be able to transcend this image if he succeeds in his election bid.
“At some point, it gets old. That’s the thing about performative politics – somehow you have to constantly perform,” Arugay said.
WAR ON DRUGS
Dela Rosa served as the chief of police in Duterte’s bailiwick, Davao City, where the firebrand leader and longtime mayor first became known for his tough stance against illegal drugs and criminality.
Dela Rosa’s brainchild, Oplan Tokhang, rooted in the Visayan words “toktok” (knock) and “hangyo” (plead), was first practiced in Davao City, where police would convince suspected drug users to end their addiction and seek rehabilitation.
Tokhang, however, gained notoriety when it was brought to the national scene, as the term was associated by critics to the thousands of deaths in anti-drug operations.
Despite the mounting drug war deaths, the administration seemed impervious to criticism, allowing Duterte and allies like Dela Rosa to still speak with confidence about the campaign.
A December 2018 survey by Social Weather Stations showed that about 66 percent of respondents said "the number of illegal drug users in their area has decreased.” Almost 8 in 10 Filipinos were satisfied with the government's anti-narcotics crackdown, according to a September 2018 SWS poll.
“Kung masama ang war on drugs, hindi tayo iboboto, dahil galit sila. But as of now hindi na kailangan pa na iyon ang magiging valdiating factor ng pagkapanalo ko,” Dela Rosa said.
(If the war on drugs is bad, then people will will not vote for me because they do not approve of it. But a victory for me should not be used to validate the drug war.)
“Pag-basehan niyo ang survey ng SWS na 66 percent of Filipinos believe that the number of drug addicts in their areas has gone down, bumaba ng husto, meaning epektibo ang ating war on drugs.”
(Just look at the SWS survey which said 66 percent of Filipinos believe that the number of drug addicts in their areas has gone down. That means the drug war is effective.)
A February survey, meanwhile, showed that most Filipinos believe that police officers were involved in summary killings, the illegal drug trade, and planting of evidence against drug suspects.
And in March, another SWS poll found that most Filipinos were worried of becoming victims of extrajudicial killings.
High public satisfaction with the war on drugs may be seen as a boost for Dela Rosa, but UP Political Science Department chair Ela Atienza said he must note that majority of Filipinos still take issue with the deaths linked to it.
“If we believe the surveys, there are people who make distinctions. They support the war on drugs, but they don’t like the killings,” Atienza told ABS-CBN News.
“They don’t like the way it has been carried out. They know that drugs should be eliminated, but they disagree with the way it has been carried out. That might affect his candidacy.”
Along with Duterte and other senior government officials, Dela Rosa is facing a probe before the International Criminal Court in connection with the war on drugs.
The probe prompted the government to withdraw the Philippines from the tribunal, but the Hague-based court said its examination of the communication filed against Duterte and his allies will continue.
If he wins, Dela Rosa’s term as senator will end three years after Duterte steps down. For Arugay, being in the halls of the Senate will give Dela Rosa some protection from any prosecution in connection to the war on drugs.
“If he wins, it might be more difficult for cases like that [to prosper]. Remember, the Senate protects its own, especially if you are part of the majority,” Arugay said.
“The Senate will not protect you if you are not part of the majority. If these cases progress while he is a sitting senator, you can count on protection both by the government as well as the Senate.”
Coming from crucial posts as chief of the PNP and then the Bureau of Corrections, coupled with Duterte's stringent support, Dela Rosa's appeal to voters has been unfading.
He is doing well in the latest surveys, landing in the 5th to 8th spot in the February poll of Pulse Asia.
He and other pro-administration candidates are dominating the winners’ circle in the most recent surveys. If this trend continues through May, the President is expected to enjoy an even stronger support from the upper chamber in the latter half of his term.
While Dela Rosa is a newbie in national politics, having spent most of his entire professional career in law enforcement, his policy stance is expected to be patterned after that of Duterte, who is seeking to reinstate the death penalty, an issue that continues to divide this largely Catholic nation.
Whether his association with the war on drugs and stand on the death penalty could be considered a boon or bane for his bid, one thing is for sure: Dela Rosa has the backing of the President.