Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who said Saturday he will retire from politics, has earned international infamy for his deadly drug war and foul-mouthed tirades, but remains hugely popular among Filipinos fed up with the country’s dysfunction and elite politicians.
A tough-talking populist and self-confessed killer, Duterte’s anti-crime campaign has resulted in the deaths of thousands of alleged dealers and addicts while drawing global condemnation.
Yet millions of Filipinos have backed his swift brand of justice, even as he joked about rape in his rambling speeches, locked up his critics and failed to root out the nation’s entrenched corruption.
Polls show Duterte — who also announced Saturday he had backed out of the vice presidential race after saying in August he would run — remains almost as popular as when he was swept to power in 2016 on a promise to rid the country of drugs.
That trust was dented by the coronavirus pandemic, which plunged the country into its worst economic crisis in decades, leaving thousands dead and millions jobless amid a slow-paced vaccine rollout.
Duterte’s woes have deepened during his final year in office as International Criminal Court (ICC) judges authorised a full-blown investigation into a possible crime against humanity during his drugs crackdown.
Critics of his signature campaign have ended up behind bars or facing lengthy jail terms, including opposition Senator Leila de Lima and journalist Maria Ressa, who was named a Time Magazine person of the year in 2018 for her work.
– ‘God is stupid’ –
Duterte has repeatedly said there is no official campaign to illegally kill addicts and dealers, but his speeches have included incitements to violence and he previously told police to kill drug suspects if their lives were in danger.
“If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful,” Duterte said hours after being sworn in as president in June 2016.
His unfiltered comments are part of his self-styled image as a maverick, which found traction in a nation where corruption, bureaucracy and dysfunction impact people’s lives at every level to the point that they cry out for shortcut solutions.
He freely uses vulgarities and has even called God “stupid”, a widely disparaged opinion in the majority-Catholic Philippines.
A night owl who turns up his nose at diplomatic niceties, he has shown up several hours late at his public events, his shirts often partly unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up, where he gives hours-long stream-of-consciousness speeches.
Duterte has been rarely seen in public during the pandemic, apart from weekly appearances on television in pre-recorded meetings with his key advisers.
On occasions he has disappeared altogether, fuelling rumours about his health until loyal aides post “proof of life” photos of him on social media, showing him playing golf, riding a motorbike or taking a walk.
The former lawyer and prosecutor was born in 1945 into a political family. His father served for three years as a cabinet secretary in Ferdinand Marcos’s government before the nation plunged into dictatorship in 1972.
An ally of the Marcos family, Duterte even allowed Ferdinand, whose brutal regime silenced the legislature and killed opponents, to be buried in the capital’s Heroes’ Cemetery.
During his long tenure as mayor of the southern city of Davao, Duterte was accused of links to vigilante death squads that rights groups say killed more than 1,000 people there — accusations he has both accepted and denied.
– ‘I simply love Xi’ –
His rule has also been marked by a swing away from the nation’s former colonial master, the United States, in favour of global superpower China.
“I simply love (Chinese president) Xi Jinping… he understands my problem and is willing to help, so I would say thank you China,” he said in April 2018.
As part of that rapprochement he set aside the rivalry with Beijing over the resource-rich South China Sea, opting to court Chinese business instead.
He claimed this friendship helped secure millions of doses of a Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccine, but the supply has fallen far short of the volume needed to protect the population of 110 million from the disease.
Billions of dollars of promised trade and investment from its superpower neighbour also have been slow to materialise.
In July, he walked back on a decision to end a key military deal with the United States.
Duterte has failed to tackle some of the country’s worst problems, including corruption, wrongdoing and impunity among local officials and police.
Three Philippine policemen were sentenced in 2018 to decades in prison for murdering a teenager during an anti-narcotics sweep, the first and only conviction so far against officers carrying out Duterte’s war on drugs.
Duterte’s critics hailed the conviction as a rare example of justice and accountability during the president’s reign.
He had said he was ready to go to jail over the crackdown, but vowed never to allow himself to come under ICC jurisdiction. AFP