MANILA, Philippines – A brash and tough-talking mayor who has pledged to kill suspected criminals and end crime within six months looked set to become the next president of the Philippines after taking an unassailable lead in an unofficial vote count in Monday’s elections.
The son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos had a narrow lead in the vice presidential race.
Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of southern Davao city, had secured more than 14.4 million votes, according to a count of 87 percent of precincts nationwide. The closest of his four main rivals, former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, had 8.6 million votes. Final results are expected Tuesday.
“We can call it now because the gap got so big relative to the maximum the No. 2 can get” of the remaining votes, said William Yu of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting. The group is accredited by the Commission on Elections to conduct the unofficial “quick count.”
A victory by Duterte would amount to a massive political shift in the Philippines. Starting as an outsider, Duterte built his popularity with radical pledges to eliminate poverty and end corruption and crime. He has a reputation for fighting crime as mayor of Davao for 22 years, but has been accused of ordering extrajudicial killings to achieve that.
On the last day of campaigning Saturday, he made clear he intends to continue his hard-line approach.
“All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you,” Duterte, 71, a former prosecutor, told a rally. “I have no patience, I have no middle ground, either you kill me or I will kill you idiots.”
Statements such as that have won him the nickname “Duterte Harry,” a reference to the Clint Eastwood movie character “Dirty Harry” who had little regard for rules. He has also been compared to Donald Trump, the U.S. Republican presumptive presidential nominee.
Duterte is known for jokes about sex and rape, talking often about his Viagra-fueled sexual escapades, and for undiplomatic remarks about Australia, the United States and China, all key players in the country’s politics. He has threatened to dismiss the Philippine Congress and form a revolutionary government if he is confronted with uncooperative legislators.
Outgoing President Benigno Aquino III tried to discourage Filipinos from voting for Duterte over fears the mayor may endanger the country’s hard-fought democracy and squander economic gains of the last six years, when the Philippine economy grew at an average of 6.2 percent, one of the best rates in Asia.
But on election day, with opinion polls giving him the best chance to win, Duterte reached out to his opponents.
“Let us be friends,” he said at a news conference after voting in Davao. “Let us begin the process of healing.”
Among the other presidential candidates, Sen. Grace Poe had 8.1 million votes and Vice President Jejomar Binay had 4.8 million, according to the partial unofficial results. Poe conceded defeat early Tuesday.
In the vice presidential race, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the former dictator who ruled the Philippines from 1972 until he was ousted in 1986 in a “people power” revolt, led with 12.6 million votes in the unofficial count. He was followed closely by Rep. Leni Robredo, who had 12.5 million votes.
Vice presidents are elected separately from presidents in the Philippines.
“I am feeling that by all indications we should be successful today,” Marcos said in a statement.
Aquino, whose parents were democracy champions who helped topple the senior Marcos, also campaigned against Marcos Jr., who has never clearly apologized for economic plunder and widespread human rights abuses under his father.
Aquino warned that Duterte could be a dictator in the making and urged voters not to support him. Filipinos have been hypersensitive to potential threats to democracy since they ousted the elder Marcos.
Aside from the presidential and vice presidential races, more than 45,000 candidates contested 18,000 national, congressional and local positions in elections that have traditionally been tainted by violence and accusations of cheating.
About 55 million Filipinos registered to vote at 36,000 polling places across the archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, including in a small fishing village in a Philippine-occupied island in the disputed South China Sea.
Weary of poverty, poor public services, crime, corruption and insurgencies in the hinterlands, voters in the nation of 100 million people looked for radical change at the top.
Duterte tapped into that discontent, pledging to end crime in half a year, even though police said it was impossible. The other candidates stuck to less audacious reforms.
He has not articulated an overall foreign policy, but has described himself as a socialist wary of the U.S.-Philippine security alliance. He has worried members of the armed forces by saying that communist rebels could play a role in his government.
When the Australian and U.S. ambassadors criticized a joke he made about wanting to be the first to have raped an Australian missionary who was gang-raped and killed by inmates in a 1989 jail riot, he told them to shut up.
He said he would talk with China about territorial disputes in the South China Sea but if nothing happened, he would sail to an artificial island newly created by China and plant the Philippine flag there. China, he said, could shoot him and turn him into a national hero.
All of Duterte’s opponents have accused him of making remarks that threaten the rule of law and democracy.
Analysts predicted that a Duterte win would weaken the Philippine peso, given his uncertain economic platform. The jitters have affected the Philippine stock market, which fell Friday – the last day of trading before Monday’s election holiday – for the 10th time in 11 days.
“The market is obviously emotional and the stronger emotion is usually fear rather than hope,” said Jose Vistan, research head at AB Capital Securities Inc. “A big chunk of the reason why we’re behaving the way we are is obviously because of the elections.”
“Duterte is completely out of the system, he’s out of the box,” said political science professor Richard Heydarian of De La Salle University in Manila, adding that in the mayor’s portrayal of social problems, “there is a gap between the rhetoric and reality but it’s working, it’s creating panic among a lot of people and rallying them behind Duterte.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.