Those who are still belittling Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as a viable presidential contender in the Philippines should no longer second guess his political astuteness.
When told that he topped an informal survey, probably phoned or texted in, conducted by ANC’s Tina Muñoz-Palma, the tough-talking Davao City mayor said he was alarmed and worried instead of being elated.
He thought his prominence in the survey – he topped it – is mere reflection of the general malaise and state of disillusionment of the people towards the country’s national political leaders.
In short, the ANC quick poll was a protest vote for him.
Now, that can only come from a jaded student of national politics.
Duterte, however, is no ordinary student of Philippine politics. He represents the worst and the best of the ugly world of it.
Since being appointed OIC vice-mayor of Davao City in 1986, Duterte has never left public office. He was elected mayor of Davao City in 1988 and was undefeated in two re-elections until he stepped down in 1998 due to term limits.
He became a member of the House or Representative in the same year but came back to defeat his protégé Benjamin de Guzman in the 2001 elections. He again finished his three consecutive 3-year term before settling for the vice mayoral post in 2010.
Then in 2013, he began what could be another long reign as chief executive of Mindanao’s most politically and economically strategic city.
He has repeatedly and successfully fended off attempts to enlist him as senatorial candidate both for the incumbent administrations and the opposition parties since 1998. He even declined to accept cabinet level positions.
‘Better the head of a rat than a tail of the lion,’ is reportedly one of his favorite axioms, a former close aide said.
He made a splash when he said he would abolish Congress and declare a revolutionary government if he is elected president, an apparent ploy to ward off supporters who are egging him on to run for president.
When it did not work, he threatened to shoot those who are pushing for his candidacy as president. Many instead answered the call by volunteering to line up in front of Davao City Hall and face the firing squad. They even printed T-shirts and accepted the Duterte challenge in their Facebook accounts.
Man of the masses
It is either you love or hate Duterte. In politics, that should be a good indicator of your political stock.
He has been called many names. Dirty Harry is one of the more popular or unpopular, depending which side of the political fence you are on.
He is not very eloquent in Tagalog but he is an excellent English speaker. He is probably one of, if not the most, quotable mayors in the country today with his colorful language and oftentimes acerbic wit. He once compared staunch political rival former House Speaker Prospero Nograles to Roderick Paulate, referring to the two’s uncanny facial skin texture similarities.
His classmate, former Agriculture Secretary Carlos ‘Sonny’ Dominguez, said Duterte was an excellent debater, one quality that has been glossed over by his reputation as a pistol-packing, motorcycle-riding, womanizing and taxi-driving city mayor.
Whatever he is, Duterte is well-loved in Davao City.
He speaks their language because he used to hang around with neighborhood toughies – the likes of the late Rene Galope and Big Boy Caingles – while still a teenager. He knows them and their network, which he used to his advantage later on as mayor when he railed against crime and criminality in the city.
He is comfortable with both the military and the rebels and probably is the only city mayor who flaunts his visits to communist rebel camps.
He is going after illegal drugs in a no-nonsense manner and is the scourge of big-time smuggling syndicates.
He made Davao City residents abide by his rule – no firecrackers even during Christmas and New Year, no smoking, no speeding, no liquor sales beyond midnight.
You think Davao City is dour?
Think again. It is one of Asia’s most livable cities. It has one of the lowest crime indexes among highly urbanized cities in the Philippines. Practically every tourist that comes to Davao says he or she feels more safe there than anywhere else in the Philippines.
Davao City has the most honest cab drivers who will give the last centavo of change for your taxi fare. And they don’t drive you around to rip you off.
For all his tough-guy image, Duterte has a soft spot for children. He has been donating huge sums of personal money for cancer-stricken children. And he almost shed tears in front of the cameras and reporters after his heart rending visit to Tacloban where he saw the agony and stench of death following the horrible tragedy of Typhoon Yolanda.
While many would jump at any opportunity of becoming the president of the country, Duterte cringes at the thought of it.
He says he is too old for it. He looks at himself as very parochial and is contented to being mayor of the city where his father migrated after running afoul of the powerful Durano clan in Cebu.
He is not used to being dictated to by powerful sectors in society, and he knows he might not be able to resist going after powerful lobby interests in the country once he gets to Malacañang. He has already made a handful of them.
These include Human Rights Commissioner Etta Rosales and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima who see Duterte’s brand of street justice as repulsive. Duterte, after all, is known to implicitly support the dreaded death squad in the city who are going after thugs and drug pushers.
But his overall brand of leadership has so far earned him the healthy respect of Malacañang. Not a single president has gone after him despite his reputation of pumping bullets against criminals – in his own hands.
By mistake and miscommunication, he once fired his Uzi assault pistol at a hapless NBI agent who posed as driver of a vehicle that delivered the ransom money for the release of a kidnap victim.
He reportedly pushed a drug pusher out of a flying helicopter and punched an army soldier for wife-abuse. Poor army man, he lost two front teeth.
When he appeared at the Senate probe on rice smuggling, the senators were awed and almost star struck even after he threatened to shoot dead the man accused of heading the syndicate who was seated across him if he catches the guy in Davao City.
All these add up to the growing legend of Duterte, Davao’s real-life Dirty Harry.
Will the people embrace a Duterte presidency?
There is no doubt residents of Davao and Region 11 will be the first to welcome and cheer his march to Malacañang should he decide to run and win the presidency in 2016. Include in that a sizable portion of the Cebuano-speaking voters in the country, of which there are plenty.
But will the powerful interests, like the military, the business sector and the landed elite allow a Duterte presidency given his open dalliance with the Left – both above and underground?
Consider this loaded statement: “I am willing to go to prison for the farmers.”
Will the country, for the first time, vote a Mindanaoan into the Office of the President?
Apart from the informal ANC survey and former Cotabato Gov. Manny Piñol’s Facebook survey, Duterte has not yet been considered a potential presidential candidate by established pollsters Pulse Asia, Social Weather Station and IBON.
But the political horizon could change overnight. Of all the post-EDSA presidential candidates who led in polls and surveys a year heading into an elections, only Joseph Estrada was able to maintain that tight grip and go on to win an election.
Miriam Santiago, Raul Roco and Manny Villar were survey leaders early on only to lose to Fidel Ramos, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Bengino Aquino respectively.
At present, Vice-President Jejomar Binay still leads as the likely candidate to win in the 2016 presidential elections. But he is slowly slipping after alleged corruption accusations against him surfaced this year.
Presumptive candidate Mar Roxas is stuck with his bad image problem while senators Grace Poe and Chiz Escudero are considered too young and still lightweights against Binay. Miriam is seriously considering herself a candidate but time may not be on her side anymore.
Will, as Duterte observes, the protest vote gather enough momentum to push him in as a wild card candidate? And will he oblige? Piñol reported that Duterte had a recent change of heart. From one almost violently resisting attempts to field him as presidential candidate to one willing to listen to what others are saying and thinking.
Duterte knows how to feel the pulse of the people. And if the sentiment against a Binay or Roxas presidency snowballs, he may yet give it a shot.
Right now he is a long shot. But the kind of protest vote may be what exactly this country needs. This is not the protest in the mould of the Left or the impetuousness of the Right. This is a kind of protest that could find a space in the hearts and minds of a fed-up voting populace.
The wild card could become a trump card.