SARANGANI, Philippines – Either you love him or hate him. Davao City’s Rodrigo Duterte is a colorful man and you will drop everything you are doing to listen to his equally colorful language – like it or not.
When Private First Class Khen Subere was released by the New People’s Army (NPA) after two months of captivity on June 13, he asked the Army man why he was declared absent without official leave (AWOL).
The Army man said he could not call his team leader as his cellular phone was seized by the communist rebels.
“Ako pa nimo balhin ka sa NPA (If I were you, I would have joined the NPA),” he matter-of-factly told the army private when he was informed that the failure of Subere to report to his superiors also led to his removal from the roster of active servicemen, 10 days after he was abducted by the rebels.
His remarks drew laughs from reporters covering the release.
But Duterte said he was serious.
“I don’t like idea that you were declared AWOL just because you were taken hostage,” the mayor said.
Yet he said he would fly the still shaken Army man in his private helicopter to the headquarters of the 10th Infantry Division, whose commanding general is a good friend and whose unit is a long recipient of Duterte’s generous intelligence funds.
Duterte wasn’t finished, though.
When asked how he will deal with the communist rebels if he becomes president, he answered even before the question could be finished: “This (insurgency) will be over.”
He said he will invite Luis Jalandoni of the National Democratic Front to join his government.
Duterte went on to explain that he will give communists 3 cabinet positions under his presidency – agrarian reform, social welfare and environment and natural resources.
“Dili coalition kay kanang military mo-kuwan kuwan og coalition. Diretso na.” he added. (Not a coalition government because the military is averse to that. We will directly absorb [the Left in government]).
Duterte has been moving around the country on a “listening tour” to gain support for his campaign to shift into a federal form of government, although many observers believe he is getting the pulse of the people for a possible run at the presidency.
Last week, a new survey increased his poll rating for the presidency from virtually zero in February and 12 percent in March to 15 and 19 percent in two different major poll surveys in the last week of May.
So, how will he handle the military?
Duterte is confident he will be able to put reins on the military, from which he commands a high degree of respectability and acceptability.
“We will go into a land reform. Hatag ko og kuwarta (I will provide funds for) fertilizer, seedlings, farm to market road and (better) farmgate (prices),” the mayor said.
He professed his leftist leanings, too.
“Left man gyud ko. Ang akong partido Bayan. Dili ko na ilimod. Tinuod man na. (I am really Left. My party is Bayan. I will not deny that. That is true),” he added
“I just happen to be a socialist. Sosyalista ang akong panlantaw sa katilingban (I have a socialist perspective for our society),” he went on.
Perhaps it is Duterte’s long standing relationship with both the above Left and the underground movement that has largely kept him insulated from becoming a target of the mainstream Left’s human rights campaign.
Despite allegations of maintaining and funding a death squads that target criminals, allegations of human rights abuses do not resonate against Duterte, although a special rapporteur of the United Nations and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima have openly accused him of supporting the extrajudicial killings in Davao City.
Many consider him a political maverick and so far the most formidable ‘presidentiable’ to have emerged from Mindanao. No Mindanaoan has ever been elected to the presidency.
His ‘progressive line’, despite being 71 years old when the presidential campaign period starts next year, will undoubtedly endear him to the Left, assuring him of at least 2 million in ‘command’ votes. But no doubt, many in the political right will find him too ‘radical’ for comfort.
Will the country vote for a Left-leaning Duterte to the presidency just as many Latin and South American countries have elected communists and socialists presidents this millennium?
Duterte’s strength is that despite his tough-guy reputation, Davao City and most of Mindanao have embraced him as one of their own. And his leadership style really works – in Davao City.
Is Duterte going to conquer the Philippine electorate where the Maoist Left has so far failed to do so: Surround the city from the countryside?
Duterte, after all, is coming from the south and the only ‘local’ politician that, so far, mounting a serious challenge to the presidency despite his avowed denials.