Philippines set for Duterte era as fears of drugs crackdown grow

‘The Punisher’ takes over as president after landslide electoral win on anti-crime ticket

When Rodrigo Duterte steps up for his inauguration as president of the Philippines wearing his traditional barong, the only embellishments on the shirt that is the national dress of this southeast Asian nation will be four customised studs that spell "DU30". D.U.Ter.Te.

“The Punisher” takes over the reins on Thursday at the Malacanang Palace – the president’s official residence – on a ticket of toughness on crime, of breaking down the current system of cronyism and fighting against the misappropriation of the country’s wealth.

Duterte is not a member of the quasi-feudal families that dominate the Philippines, so while he is big on tough talk, there are questions about whether it will be enough to protect him in Congress and the Senate, where he has few natural allies.

Filipinos joke there is nothing Duterte cannot do – when a rainstorm breaks out in the Makati business district, a woman shouts out “Don’t worry, Duterte will shoot the rain”.

The new president has declared open war on the drugs trade, and since the May 9th election, he secured double the votes of his closest rival , at least 59 people have died in a police crackdown on shabu, or methamphetamines. This is the official figure – some police say 60 people have died in Quezon City alone.

An election pledge to kill all drug dealers has rights groups and the Catholic Church fearful of escalating violence and vigilantism becoming the norm.

Everyone you talk to in the capital loves the 71-year-old mayor of Davao City, who joked about how he wishes he could have been first in line in the fatal gang rape of an Australian missionary, and who scandalised this overwhelmingly Catholic country by calling Pope Francis "a son of a b****".

He is also known for his close ties to the family of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose son and namesake lost out on the vice-presidency.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Feliciano Belmonte said there was "zero chance" Duterte would be impeached during his time in office, a fate suffered by former film star Joe Estrada, who became president in 1998 but was impeached two years later for corruption.

“Let’s face it, the chances of that [impeachment] are zero and nobody would even think of it. Let’s give the new president a chance to run the country without talk of impeachment or anything like that being uttered by anybody from any political party,” the Liberal Party vice-chairman told reporters in the capital.

After Duterte swears his oath of allegiance, guests at the inauguration will have a simple buffet of snacks, a gesture in line with his modesty on fiscal issues to match his toughness on crime.

Filipinos love their soap operas and recent political history has made for the kind of viewing familiar from these documents of social realism, with strong themes of corruption and abuse of power running through the script.

Opposition leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated in 1983 and his wife Corazon became the figurehead for the "People Power" movement that swept to power in 1986, and saw the US-backed Marcos flee to Hawaii.

Duterte will also have to deal with the spate of executions by the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Islamist militant group, which beheaded two Canadian abductees recently.

Corazon Aquino was replaced by army chief Fidel Ramos in 1992, then in 1998 by the disgraced Estrada. Gloria Arroyo, who has also been charged with corruption and electoral fraud, succeeded him.

In 2010, Benigno Aquino, son of Benigno and Corazon, came to power and had a very successful period in office but because of electoral rules was not allowed a second term.

“People here vote for the candidates they think is popular, which is not so good, but they were really tired of years of bad leaders. Even though Pinoy [Benigno Aquino] was popular, they went for new people,” said a 29-year-old man surnamed Ashay.

In Davao, death squads killed hundreds of dealers, addicts and street children during Duterte’s mayorship, rights groups say.

"I am from Davao, and he did a lot of things there during the 90s and the 2000s. But the dealers he drove out of town all came to Manila. And now they are here, so people think he will do the same thing here . . . we look for the quick way out here, maybe," said Ashay.

Popular singer Mocha said she volunteered to perform at Duterte’s thanksgiving party because of his reformist credentials.

"I have been a volunteer ever since Duterte started his campaign. I volunteered mainly to honour my late father who was killed in an ambush years back. He was a court judge in Pangasinan. He was like Duterte, he was fighting for reforms," she said.

Singer/comedian and TV host Arnell Ignacio told the Manila Bulletin he was initially drawn by Duterte's love of profanities, but was won over by his evangelism.

“His speeches were enlightening. Listening to him made me love our country even more,” said Ignacio. “He promised me he will fix this country and I believe him. That is why I’m ready to defend him from bashers. He is true to his word . . . This is the guy the Philippines needs. Change is coming.”