World

Duterte Harry: why is he the Philippines' most popular ever leader?

24 January 2021

6:00 PM

24 January 2021

6:00 PM

If you thought Donald Trump was rude to journalists, hang on to your hats. Miffed by a journalist’s temerity in asking about his health, president Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines exploded: ‘How is your wife’s vagina? Is it smelly? Or not smelly? Give me a report.’

Duterte, a 75-year-old provincial politician who revels in the sobriquet ‘Duterte Harry’ after Clint Eastwood’s cop, arrived in national politics in June 2016 with all the media hullabaloo of other internationally reviled populist leaders such as Viktor Orbán and Recep Erdogan. The foul-mouthed Duterte, clearly a coprolaliac, is just as brutal with his political opponents. After obtaining a tape of his leading senatorial antagonist, the former justice secretary Leila de Lima, having sex with her driver, Duterte announced on television that she ‘is not only screwing her driver, she is also screwing the nation… whore mother. If she were my mother, I’d shoot her.’

When another senator, Antonio Trillanes, accused Duterte’s son of being a Chinese triad member and an importer of methamphetamine (to which up to 3.7 million Filipinos out of a population of 108 million are addicted), the president, sporting a gun in his waistband, challenged his political opponent to an OK Corral-style gunfight: ‘Son of a bitch, get out there, let’s have a draw.’

Duterte’s targets are not limited to Filipino politicians. Notwithstanding the still important, albeit diminished, role of the Catholic church, Duterte called Pope Francis ‘the son of a whore’ for causing a traffic jam when he visited Manila. More predictably, Barack Obama was not spared; after a typically preachy Obama comment about the Philippines’ governance, Duterte suggested that the US president should be awarded the ‘Order of the Son of a Whore’.

Chelsea Clinton also drew fire when she tweeted criticism of Duterte’s joking about rape: in a brutal tweeted response he asked her how she felt about her father ‘screwing Lewinsky’. Like Trump, Duterte doubles down when criticised.

Duterte was a handful from birth. Born to a successful regional politician and a deeply religious Catholic mother from the southern island of Mindanao, the second largest of 7,000 islands that comprise the Philippine archipelago, Duterte had a privileged upbringing. His parents were often absent, and he ran wild. Their house had a chapel replete with icons, statuettes and religious paraphernalia. Parental beatings combined with molestation by a priest no doubt influenced his equivocal attitude to the church.

Not content with fast cars and motorbikes, at Holy Cross School Duterte flew a plane dangerously low over an outdoor school assembly, supposedly in a display of bravado to woo a buxom school canteen girl. His sister Jocelyn admitted that ‘he loves women, he’s a speed-freak, and a show-off’. Throughout his life he would often have half a dozen girlfriends on the go, not including one-night stands. Neither was Duterte a stranger to violence in his youth. The squat, powerfully built president confessed that he had stabbed someone to death when he was 16. After being teased at law school in Manila, Duterte shot at a fellow student and was banned from his graduation ceremony; he would later boast, ‘I am used to shooting people.’

His former wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman, an air hostess of German Jewish descent, left him in 1998 after his flagrant adultery became too much to bear. She won an annulment with the support of a clinical psychologist who concluded that Duterte ‘is suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder, with aggressive features’. His behaviour was characterised by ‘gross indifference, insensitivity and self-centredness’ and a ‘grandiose sense of self-entitlement’.


Like Vladimir Putin, Duterte is a habitual photographic poser. As mayor of Mindanao’s capital, Davao, a city closer to Sulawesi and the Moluccas than Manila, Duterte dressed in black polo shirts and jeans, and often sported a red-check lumber jacket. His favourite props were guns and a Harley-Davidson, which he used to drive around the streets looking for criminals. Indeed, it was his 23-year career as the gun-toting mayor of Davao that made his name. Formerly a city with a fearsome reputation for violence and murder, Davao was transformed by Duterte into a lagoon of tranquility. Just as he met insult with insult, he met violence with violence. Stamping out crime became his cause célèbre. Drug dealers and criminals were hunted down and executed by gunmen riding pillion. ‘I would rather see criminals dead than innocent victims die,’ explained Duterte. In 2001 he even went on television to read out the names of 500 drug dealers; it was, in effect, a Sulla-esque proscription list. The death squads worked. Crime rates collapsed.

Civil control was draconian. IBM was brought in to operate a citywide surveillance system. In Davao, speed limits were cut to 19 mph. Inspired by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Duterte gave up smoking and banned it. Seeing a man smoking in a café, Duterte sat down next to him, pushed a snub-nosed Colt .38 into his testicles and said, ‘I’ll give you these choices: I’ll shoot your balls, send you to jail, or you eat your cigarette butt.’

No prizes for guessing which option was chosen. Pacified streets brought a booming economy to Davao with a rapidly developing commercial and tourist hub. As Stella Estremera, editor of the Davao SunStar, has judged after a 30-year acquaintance, Duterte is ‘an old-fashioned guy who wants the world to be a safer place’.

In 2016 Duterte, the outsider with a provincial accent, shook Manila’s political elite to its core. He galvanised provincials, former supporters of the deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos and aspirational urban workers, as well as Luzon’s left-behind. Duterte promised an end to the corruption and monopoly of power of the traditional Luzon political families. But it was the extermination of crime — literally — that became his winning rallying cry: ‘Am I the death squad? True, that is true,’ he announced on television.

As the vacuum created by a precipitous decline of church attendance was filled by social media, Duterte and his supporters took command. Philippine politics, already aggressive and mudslinging, descended to a new low. Trolls such as pop singer cum-sex-dancer Mocha Uson led the news with attacks on Duterte’s mainstream and liberal critics. Other supporters included Manny ‘the PacMan’ Pacquiao, arguably the greatest boxer in history, the nation’s sporting icon and now a Filipino senator.

After winning a landslide electoral victory, Duterte set about implementing the ‘no drug crime’ policy that had been his hallmark in Davao. In 2016, of 82,000 drug connected people listed by the authorities, more than half gave themselves up. By some estimates, 10,000 people were killed in extra judicial murders during the first year of his presidency. As well as police death squads, private contractors were also put to work. In a BBC interview, an Asian female assassin claimed that the price for killing a drug user was 5,000 pesos (£75), while a drug pusher commanded 10,000-15,000 pesos (£150-£220).

According to Duterte’s opponents, including Human Rights Watch, since 2016 some 10 opposition mayors and hundreds of political ‘activists’ have been murdered. In 2016 Edgar Matobato, an assassin for the Lambada Boys death squad, came forward to admit to killing some 50 victims, feeding some to crocodiles; he even accused Duterte of ordering hits and taking part in murders using an Uzi machine gun. However, killing of political opponents, as distinct from drug dealers, has been hotly denied by Duterte and remains unproven.

When Obama upbraided Duterte over human rights, he responded by pointing out American hypocrisy: ‘They invaded this country and made us their subjugated people.’ (It is estimated that between 1899 and 1902 as many as one million Filipinos died in the rebellion against their American conquerors.) Meanwhile, he accused the US ambassador of working for the CIA and called him a ‘gay son of a bitch’. After the Catholic Church similarly criticised Duterte, he denounced them in a barely coherent rant as being ‘full of shit at mabaho rin kayong lahat [and you all stink too], corruption and all.’

The West’s liberal media cannot look past Duterte’s crackdown on drugs and criminality, so his moderate, pragmatic and indeed inclusive domestic agenda goes largely unacknowledged. Through his grandmother, Duterte had connections with the Moro, the indigenous Muslim tribes of Sulu and Mindanao, who, as part of the Sulu Sultanate, had, since the 15th century, fought against Spanish, then American rule. Contrary to his strongman image, Duterte has, since his time as mayor of Davao, reached out to Muslim communities with much success. However, when jihadist diehards, who are financed by Isis and other caliphate groups in Indonesia and Malaysia, took control of the city of Marawi in 2017, Duterte crushed them ruthlessly.

Furthermore, in spite of his reputation as a misogynist and homophobe, Duterte passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in Davao. The Philippines elected its first transgender person to Congress in 2016. Three years later, Duterte supported a comprehensive anti-discrimination act ‘prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age, racial or ethnic origin… sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity’.

Duterte also sits on the liberal side of the fence when it comes to climate change, albeit in a posture defined by his anti western stance. Although Duterte had initially refused to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change because he blamed the West for the historic accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide, he eventually yielded in order to gain access to green funds. In the wake of November’s Typhoon Vamco, the 21st tropical cyclone of 2020 and the second that month to cause destructive damage on Luzon, Duterte continued to call for climate change justice.

Economically, Duterte, while describing himself as a socialist, has been pro-business and sustained the economic growth record of his predecessors. Duterte’s shift toward China and away from the US was driven by president Obama’s failure to challenge Chinese construction of an airfield and naval fortress in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly Islands, combined with his interference in Philippine politics. Within months of his election victory in May 2016, Duterte took a 400-strong business delegation to China, seeking rapprochement and investment. Since the US financial crash of 2008, he has, pragmatically, gone with the flow of global power.

‘America has lost,’ Duterte declared in a speech to Xi Jinping and the assembled Chinese leadership in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Notably, although Duterte established a mutually warm and admiring relationship with president Trump, he did not follow Trump’s lead on China. We can be sure that Joe Biden will not prise back the Philippines or the South China Sea from China’s grasp.

Four years after his election, and in spite of his modest record in dealing with Covid-19, Duterte’s popularity is undimmed. Surprisingly favoured as much by women as by men, and in defiance of a western media that declines to judge Duterte in Asian terms, his popularity rose by four per cent to 91 per cent in October, making him by far the most popular politician in Philippine history. If it were not for the constitutional limits of a single six year term, a presidential reelection would be a racing certainty.

Instead, Duterte is likely to support his 42-year-old daughter Sara Duterte, supposedly his favourite child. As mayor of Davao City and the founder of her own party (Faction for Change), she is popular in her own right. In 2011, she beat up a sheriff on live TV for implementing a court order to demolish a Davao City shanty. Sara should be a shoo-in to succeed her father: a pugilistic political dynasty is in the making.

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