MANILA — If crowds are anything to go by, the May 9 presidential election is a foregone conclusion. Two days before the vote, leading candidate Rodrigo Duterte drew between 300,000 to 500,000 people at his final election rally at a landmark grandstand near Manila’s Rizal Park. The turnout was at least double that of any other candidate.
“This is the next president of the Philippines,” yelled supporter Angel Valeron, one of thousands of fist-pumping “Dutertards,” clad in red t-shirts bearing the slogan “Iron fist,” a reference to the 71- year-old Duterte’s no-nonsense style of running Davao on the southern island of Mindanao.
“Dutertard” is a slur leveled at Duterte supporters by rivals, but since appropriated by backers of the Davao City mayor in self-styled defiance.
As mayor for 22 years, Duterte oversaw a clean-up of the once dangerous and chaotic city, allegedly even participating in the extrajudicial shooting of alleged criminals. Duterte said he will do the same nationally if elected, telling the crowd in Manila that he will “butcher” criminals.
“If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out,” Duterte said, drawing a thunderous roar from the crowd.
While Duterte was entrancing the masses with his homespun and often vulgar oratory, Manual “Mar” Roxas, a former minister and favored candidate of current President Benigno Aquino, attracted around 150,000 people to a park in Quezon City to the north of Manila, while the three other presidential candidates drew much smaller crowds.
At the beginning of the election campaign, it was seen as a tight race among Duterte, Roxas, Senator Grace Poe and Vice President Jejomar Binay. But in recent weeks, Duterte has streaked ahead with a 33% standing in opinion polls, 11 points ahead of his nearest rival, Poe.
Duterte looks unstoppable, despite provoking international outrage after joking about the rape and murder of an Australian missionary in Davao in which Duterte said he wished he could have been first to assault the woman.
Asked if the any of the other candidates could overtake Duterte, Martin Romualdez, a lawmaker from the Leyte region in the central Philippines, said “it is pretty farfetched at this point, it looks like Duterte will win.”
His supporters appear to love the Davao mayor’s expletive-peppered speeches and withering descriptions of his rivals. He draws guffaws and giggles from the crowds when he makes an unflattering impersonation of Roxas, who Duterte describes as “a weak link,” despite Roxas’s pivotal role in expanding the important business process outsourcing sector.
Duterte by contrast portrays s himself as a “can do” candidate, whose strongman leanings could supplement economic reforms and growth under Aquino and help the Philippines catch up with its more prosperous neighbors.
“I don’t think he is a perfect candidate, but maybe he can bring some discipline to Manila and the Philippines,” said Imee D. Rajagukguk, a Manila-based doctor.
The surge in support for Duterte comes despite Aquino’s warnings that the Davao mayor’s autocratic persona represents “a threat to democracy.”
“There is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship,” Aquino warned, likening the choice of Duterte to Hitler coming to power in 1933. Aquino made a last-ditch attempt to urge the four other candidates to unify in opposition to Duterte. But the effort failed as neither Poe nor Roxas agreed to give way.
In his final speech, Duterte said he would have criminals executed in the presence of human rights groups and dismissed Aquino’s criticisms, calling the outgoing president a “son of a bitch.” It was the same slur Duterte used against Pope Francis during the pontiff’s recent visit to the Philippines. Despite the country’s fervent Catholicism, Duterte’s irreverence did not apparently dent his electability, and the same appears to be the case regarding his insults toward the president’s family.
Aquino is the son of Corazon Aquino, a national hero who succeeded dictator Ferdinand Marcos as president after he was deposed in a Manila street revolution in 1986. She was the widow of Ninoy Aquino, an anti-Marcos leader who was assassinated at Manila’s airport in 1983.
The former dictator’s son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. or “Bongbong,” is one of several candidates vying for the vice-presidency, raising the prospect of a Duterte-Marcos duo running the Philippines. Vice presidents in the Philippines are elected separately, although they are paired with presidential candidates during campaigning. Duterte’s running mate is Alan Cayetano, a Bible-quoting senator.
Duterte, an anti-establishment outsider who has been likened to Donald Trump for his outlandish quips, however, faces the possibility that the party machines that are backing his establishment rivals could get the vote out in the election to defeat him. Around 70% of the elected politicians in the Philippines have ties to political dynasties and vote-buying is rife.
Duterte is not a machine politician, his backers contend. “Mayor Duterte represents a different mould, the others you can lump into one. Duterte’s approach is different, he has accomplished so much in Davao and wants to bring it to the whole country,” said Dante Liban, a Duterte supporter and a candidate in the senate election that is also taking place on May 9.
Lawmaker Romualdez said that economic growth under Aquino, though laudable, had not yet “filtered down” to the quarter of Filipinos who live in poverty. “People have grown impatient already with the all rhetoric and pronouncements,” said Romualdez, yelling over the din of a pop band entertaining the crowd at the Duterte rally.
“There have been some improvements, but many people still do not have work,” a bus driver in Manila, who identified himself as Joey. “My sister emigrated to Dubai, where she sends all her salary back to my parents.”