Underfinanced and overly maligned for his brand of leadership, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte jumped into the presidential derby two months after the official campaign period had started. And with no national political machinery, and who hardly traveled outside his city for two decades as mayor, Duterte was hesitant to enter the race. But it must have been destiny that pushed him into the fray.
With no previous national government experience, Digong knew too well that to beat his nationally well-known rivals, he has to win the hearts of the people and seal a “sacred” covenant with them. To do this, he has to go down to the level of the “common tao” and impress upon them a sincere message of hope, which is “Para tunay na pagbabago” – for a real change.
Impunity of lawlessness
Before becoming mayor of Davao City, the city was known as the “Murder Capital of the Philippines.” It was the country’s Dodge City where lawlessness ruled. And this brings to mind the legendary Wyatt Earp, the crime-fighter in the epic movie “Gunfight at O.K. Corral,” which was followed by “Tombstone” decades later.
Together with his three brothers and the feared gunfighter and killer, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, Earp clashed with a group of outlaws called “cowboys” in the 1870s, chasing them from Dodge City, Kansas to Tombstone, Arizona where the Earps and Holliday figured in gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt Earp was credited with fighting lawlessness in Dodge City and Tombstone.
In so many ways, Digong Duterte may be likened to Wyatt Earp. Wyatt’s posse cleaned up Tombstone of the lawless cowboys while Digong fought the criminals of his city with the participation of a reputed group of vigilantes known as the “Davao Death Squad” or DDS. Although Duterte never admitted to being the leader of DDS, it came to be known as the “Duterte Death Squad,” which makes some people wonder: Is Digong a gangster or a gang-buster? But his people – the “masa” – like what he did for their city, which Numbeo ranked in June 2015 as the “fourth safest city in the world.”
According to Wikepedia, Numbeo is a crowd-sourced global database of reported consumer prices, perceived crime rates, quality of health care, and other statistics. Using its crime and safety indices, Numbeo rated Davao City “low” in its crime rate measures and “high” in its safety measures. Interestingly, while that is happening in Davao City, other cities (e.g., Cebu City and Metro Manila) are rated increasingly in crime and dangerously unsafe. Davao City boasts that it is one of only three areas in the world, after the U.S. and Canada, to have a fully computerized Integrated Response System 911. And by and large the citizens are happier.
It did not then come as a surprise that when Digong entered the presidential race, his reputation as an iron-fisted disciplinarian impressed people across the country. And his zero tolerance for lawbreakers became his trademark.
He liked to patrol the city streets at night riding on a Harley Davidson or sometimes driving a taxi to catch robbers preying on drivers. He banned smoking.
At one time, he caught a foreigner violating the ordinance and forced him to chew the cigarette butt. He also prohibited firecrackers and imposed a nighttime curfew for minors to fight juvenile delinquency.
Digong’s “shock and awe” style of conveying his campaign message is what sets him apart from his rivals who use traditional canned slogans and promises to woo the voters. But the voters preferred to hear Duterte’s blunt warnings and threats to lawbreakers. Like for instance when Duterte threatened to shoot criminals and hang them using laundry line or drown them in the Manila Bay. “The fish in Manila Bay will get fat,” he said. “If I become president, even God will cry.”
In one of the presidential debates, he pledged to eradicate crime — especially drug trafficking and kidnappings – and corruption in three to six months. When a journalist asked him to elaborate, Duterte said that while suspected drug dealers end up in jail in Manila, they’d be dead in his city. And he was applauded when he said: “When I say ‘leave Davao,’ you leave Davao. If you do not do that, you’re dead. That’s the way the story will go, no drama.” Then he turned to one of his rivals, Mar Roxas, and told him: “If you do not know how to kill people and you’re afraid to die, that’s the problem, you cannot be a president.”
That kind of language sends shudder down the spines of criminals. But to the masa, it sounds like sweet symphonic melody. He earned the nickname “Duterte Harry” after a Clint Eastwood character called “Dirty Harry” who had little or no regard for rules. Indeed, “killing all criminals” has become his trademark campaign battle cry. However, he’d remind his audience that if they didn’t commit a crime, they don’t have to worry.
Crime in the Philippines has become one of the country’s biggest – if not the biggest – problems. Killing of journalists, assassination of political figures, drug trafficking, and human trafficking have been plaguing the country… and the occurrences are increasing. No amount of law enforcement reform and legislation has effectively curbed lawlessness.
For the past two decades, people have been calling for a leader to come forth and give criminals a run for their lives. And a lot of them wished, “If only we have a Filipino Lee Kuan Yew, the country would be a lot safer.” It would seem like wishful thinking, an impossible dream. But when Duterte decided to run for president, the people reacted spontaneously. To a lot of them, particularly the poor masa, Duterte is the messiah who will deliver them from a perpetual bondage of poverty. When hope is gone, change – any change – is welcome. After all, what is there to lose?
And for those who have yet to be convinced, the time of reckoning is coming on Election Day. And the voters who have yet to be convinced of the “Duterte Phenomenon” that is going viral in social media, they would come to realize – nay, believe! – that Duterte is not only a phenomenon; he is a phenomenal phenomenon.