‘Duterte Harry’ tipped to win as Philippines heads to the polls

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Voters in Philippines go to polls to elect new president and many other officials

Rodrigo Duterte, a colorful and controversial mayor of a southern city, is the favorite

Manila CNN  — 

Millions in the Philippines started casting their votes as polls opened Monday to select a new government that will shape the country for the next six years.

Nearly 55 million of the country’s 100 million population have registered to choose not only a new president and deputy, but also to elect half of the Senate, the entire House of Representatives as well as tens of thousands of local posts, from governors, mayor and members of the provincial councils.

Leading in presidential polls is Rodrigo Duterte, a long-time mayor of the southern city of Davao.

He’s a colorful and controversial figure known for his inflammatory comments on a gang rape, his sexual conquests and tough stance on crime.

If elected, he has vowed to execute 100,000 criminals and dump them into Manila Bay.

In his last campaign stump Saturday, Duterte, 71, played his role to the hilt, and again vowed to butcher criminals as he told thousands gathered in central Manila: “Forget the laws of human rights.”

“If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because as the mayor, I’d kill you,” Duterte, said to wild cheers from the throng of supporters.

Duterte: From ‘Punisher’ to President?

He has also promised to jail the corrupt, along with rogue members of the police and the military.

His tirades against the country’s elite have touched a chord among many Filipinos but he has set alarm bells ringing for rights advocates.

‘Duterte Harry?’

In the southern city of Davao, where Duterte has held office for decades, he has long been dogged by allegations of ties to death squads and extrajudicial killings.

The man, who is most comfortable in shirts and jeans, has been dubbed “Duterte Harry” and “The Punisher” by the enamored local press for his exploits.

Carlos Conde, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the group had put out a questionnaire to the candidates to ask about their stance on extra-judicial killings. Duterte did not reply.

“We’ve always raised the concern that the death squads in Davao has ushered in an epidemic of similar death squad-style killings in other cities. HRW documented this particularly in Tagum City, not far from Davao.”

“Politicians who popularize death squads as a form of crime control are helping spread this epidemic across the country. At the bottom of this, of course, is the breakdown of rule of law,” he told CNN.

He noted that “death squad killings” have a measure of support among the citizenry wary of high crime, but stressed they also breed “lawlessness, corruption and disregard for the rule of law that will spell disaster for the years to come.”

‘Specter of dictatorship?’

President Benigno Aquino, the son of the country’s democracy icons Benigno and Corazon Aquino, was elected in a landslide in 2010, but his popularity has taken a dent in the past two years as crime worsened — even as the economy chugged forward.

Aquino himself called for all the candidates to unite against Duterte, warning of uncertainty and the “specter of dictatorship” if Duterte won.

Does the Philippines want another Marcos?

Duterte faces current Interior Minister Mar Roxas, Aquino’s protege who is perceived as bland despite solid credentials; Grace Poe, 47, a popular senator who has been challenged over her citizenship; Jejomar Binay, 73, the country’s exiting vice president hounded by accusations of corruption ; and Miriam Defensor Santiago, 70, a veteran lawmaker and legal expert who once contested the presidency in 1992.

A recent poll by polling firm Social Weather Stations has Duterte in the lead, with 33%, followed by Poe at 22% and Roxas at 20%. Binay and Santiago were at 13% and 2%, respectively.

Many people took to social media posting photos of their inked-marked finger to show they had voted.

Roxas, 57, said the campaign had been extremely taxing and characterized by mudslinging. He said the Philippines once again was in the world’s spotlight, and urged all voters to make the right choice.

“We are here fighting for our future, fighting for the continuation of our way of life,” he said Saturday. “No matter what they say, critics cannot deny that the Philippines is now Asia’s bright star.”

Indeed, the Philippine economy has steadily grown since the early 2000s, earning credit ratings upgrades, with the economy and spending power fueled by the money sent home by the country’s army of overseas workers.

On the political and diplomatic front, the government has been feted for standing up to China over a row in the South China Sea.

Protest vote?

Ramon Casiple, a political analyst and head of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said Duterte leads in the polls because choosing him is considered “a protest vote.”

“He is a symbol for the people. Nothing happened for many people in the past six years, and he has capitalized on his image as the folk hero here,” Casiple told CNN.

He said the electorate were mesmerized at how Duterte continued his attacks on the country’s elite, and seemed to care little that he is portrayed, at times, as uncouth.

“Even some in the business elite are intrigued by what he has promised, and the way he proposed to step down as president if he failed to solve crime, traffic, congestion,” he said, but cautioned as well that when “moths fly closely into the fire” oftentimes, they get burned.