Duterte Widens Lead in Philippines Race Despite Rape Comment

  • All candidates pledge to assert South China Sea island claims
  • Presidential hopefuls also pledge to end Labor outsourciing

Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte.

Photographer: Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

Rodrigo Duterte jumped further ahead in the Philippine presidential race, according to a new poll taken after the tough talking Davao City mayor’s inflammatory comments over the 1989 rape and murder of an Australian missionary, as the campaign enters its last two weeks.

In the latest poll published by BusinessWorld and conducted by Social Weather Stations April 18 to April 20, Duterte led with 33 percent compared with 27 percent in SWS’s previous survey. Senator Grace Poe was in second with 24 percent, while Mar Roxas, the candidate backed by outgoing President Benigno Aquino, was third on 19 percent. Vice President Jejomar Binay fell to fourth with 14 percent. The election will be held on May 9.

While Aquino has presided over the Philippines’ fastest growth since the 1970s and curbed corruption, voters appear to be embracing Duterte’s pitch as an honest broker whose tough-guy approach will enable him to get things done, particularly in areas such as cutting through infrastructure logjams and curbing crime.

"The rise of Duterte in the Philippines polls reminds me of Donald Trump’s rise in the U.S.," said Curtis S. Chin, a Milken Institute Asia Fellow and managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. "Duterte and Trump have both tapped into a growing sentiment that the established political classes are not the solution to long-standing economic problems. Both the Philippines and the U.S. electorates seem to be hungering for stronger leadership."

In Sunday night’s third and final televised presidential debate, all candidates pledged to push back against claims by China to disputed islands in the South China Sea. Duterte promised to personally visit the territory to stake his nation’s claim if China refuses to accept the outcome of international arbitration at the Hague expected to be handed down in June.

"Should we win the arbitration and China doesn’t honor the ruling, I will not go to war," Duterte said. "I will ask the navy to bring me to the nearest boundary near Spratly Scarborough. I will take a jet ski, carrying the Philippine flag and I will go to China’s airport and then I will install it and say, This is ours and do what you want with me. It’s up to you. I would stake that claim."

‘Personal Aquarium’

Poe said the South China Sea was not China’s “personal aquarium,” adding that she would provide more boats to the Philippine Coast Guard, and radios to Filipino fishermen going into disputed waters, and would seek more international assistance in maintaining sovereignty.

All candidates also pledged in Sunday’s debate to introduce new laws to end the practice of labor outsourcing, or contractualization, and to extend greater assistance to Filipinos working overseas.

The latest poll which shows Duterte -- a self-confessed womanizer who minces no words about killing criminals -- extending his lead may rattle his rivals who have stuck to conventional campaign rhetoric and disapproved of his stance on women, fighting crime and managing international ties.

Economic Policy

Duterte performed poorly in a Bloomberg survey on which candidate would be the best to steer the Philippine economy after Aquino steps down. Roxas and Poe were viewed by the 10 economists surveyed as the most capable of delivering on their promises to lead the nation that’s been among the fastest growing in the world with a stock market that’s more than doubled since Aquino took office in 2010.

Last week Duterte, 71, who was first elected Davao mayor in 1988, dared the U.S. and Australia to sever diplomatic ties after ambassadors from both countries strongly condemned comments by Duterte on April 12 that an Australian missionary who was raped and murdered in a 1989 Davao City prison riot was so beautiful that, as mayor, he should have been first in line.

The mayor’s remarks were posted on YouTube and went viral on April 17, attracting front page coverage from many local dailies the next day. After first refusing to step back from the use of what he called “gutter language,’’ Duterte’s camp later issued an apology for the remarks.

Former Prosecutor

A lawyer who worked as a prosecutor in Davao for nine years before becoming vice mayor in 1986 and mayor two years later, Duterte made his reputation targeting drug traffickers and sexual predators in a broad crackdown on crime. At one point, he told criminals they had two options on how they could leave Davao: vertically or horizontally.

While Duterte was credited for transforming Davao, known as the nation’s murder capital in the 1980s, peace and order came at a cost. Human Rights Watch has accused Duterte of giving tacit support to extra judicial killings of more than 1,000 suspected criminals since the late 1990s. Duterte has denied any involvement in the killings.

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