Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks before departing for a visit to Brunei and China on Oct. 16 at Davao airport.(Photo: Manman Dejeto, AFP/Getty Images)
MANILA — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sparked worldwide condemnation for his profane rhetoric and controversial actions, such as the mass execution of alleged drug dealers.
But at home, folks love him.
Two recent polls show Duterte has approval ratings above 80% after three months in office. Those surveyed like the very things that have alienated foreign leaders and human rights groups: a blunt style, a willingness to shake up the establishment and an unconventional war on crime.
Lai Rajik, 33, a housewife, said she has seen a dramatic change in her Manila neighborhood, notorious for heavy crime and drug use. "Maharlika is now very peaceful,” she said. “Before, taxi drivers wouldn't even come here. Now they do. Children can go around. We feel safe.”
Duterte's signature initiative since he took office at the end of June has been a war on drugs that has left more than 3,500 alleged pushers and users dead at the hands of police and vigilante groups. The bloody wave of executions drew the condemnation of numerous human rights groups.
Duterte, 71, is undeterred by the criticism. “If it involves human rights, I don’t give a s---,” he said in a recent interview with Al Jazeera. “You destroy my country, I'll kill you. And it's a legitimate thing. If you destroy our young children, I will kill you. That is a very correct statement. There is nothing wrong in trying to preserve the interest of the next generation."
Such blunt, obscenity-laced language has become a trademark of Duterte, a former mayor who came to prominence for cleaning up crime in Davao City with the same strong-armed tactics he uses nationally. At a summit in Laos last month, he called President Obama a "son of a bitch" and previously referred to Pope Francis as a "son of a whore."
Known as the Donald Trump of the Philippines because of his brash personality, Duterte has made international waves with an abrupt change in foreign policy. On a state visit to China this week, he announced a “separation” from the United States to form closer ties with the Philippines’ giant neighbor. That represents a major breach in historically close ties between the island nation and the United States, which has a naval base in the Philippines. Duterte said he would end joint military exercises with the United States as the Obama administration is increasingly concerned about China's aggressive military posture in the region.
On Friday, Duterte walked back his "separation" comment.
“When you say severance of ties, you cut the diplomatic relations. I cannot do that. Why? It’s to the best interest of my country that we maintain that relationship,” Duterte said, adding that Filipinos were not ready to embrace such an option. What he meant by his remarks in China, Duterte said, was ending a Philippine foreign policy that closely leaned toward the U.S., according to the Associated Press.
His move away from the United States, however, doesn't seem to bother Filipinos. Nor do they seem upset with daily images of executed bodies on evening newscasts and in newspapers and social media. Rather, they see Duterte as a man of action taking drastic steps to shake up a country that has long been run by a political elite indifferent to the problems of crime, pollution and traffic.
The killings are "kind of disturbing, but in a way, I do agree,” said Rose Gatdula, 50, a service representative at a Manila call center. “I don't want my kid to be victimized by those illegal drugs or the peer pressure that he will encounter.”
Gatdula said Duterte has improved services. “Even in small things, we can see some changes," she said, citing better garbage pickups.
Some analysts praise his domestic policies, such as eliminating government red tape, enhancing labor rights and resolving long-running disputes with communist insurgents and Muslim separatists on his home island of Mindanao.
“The language is very bad, but the actions on the ground aren't really that bad except for human rights — that's very bad, the killings,” said Tony La Viña, dean of the school of government at Ateneo de Manila University, a former campaign adviser to one of Duterte’s campaign opponents, former senator Grace Poe. “In terms of the anti-poverty programs, the peace process, many of the other things the government is doing, they're actually quite good, and I support them."
Former president Fidel Ramos, who had been a close adviser to Duterte, complained in a Manila Bulletin column this month that the new president has failed to address pressing issues such as poverty and has become mired in controversy over the mass drug killings and curtailed ties with the U.S. military. "This is a huge ... letdown to many of us,” Ramos wrote.
Richard Javad Heydarian, assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila, said that despite Duterte's strong favorable ratings, many Filipinos are waiting to see whether their controversy-courting president can deliver real improvements to everyday life.
“He's still in his honeymoon period. People are still giving him the benefit of the doubt," Heydarian said. "It's not going to stick to him for another year or so if he continues to pick unnecessary fights and doesn't get the fundamental results that will bring the country together.”