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Blustery, crime-busting Philippine president-elect faces political sobriety test

June 28, 2016

He fears that the presidential palace is haunted. He is considering whether to rule the Philippines from his hometown of Davao, an hour’s flight from the capital, Manila. He says he would jet-ski to a South China Sea shoal that his government disputes with more militarily powerful Beijing.

The incoming president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is widely known for his off-color jokes, profanity and daring pledges. But the easily outraged, tough-talking persona that helped get the 71-year-old Davao mayor elected president in May is coming under new scrutiny. Even in his wildly supportive hometown, people want him to drop the rough-hewn bluster in favor of more sober ambitions, such as mending relations with China and balancing economic interests across the resource-rich, fast-growing country of 100 million people.

Merging the populist with the practical is shaping up as Duterte’s first key test in office after the inauguration Thursday.

“Sometimes he talks too cool and everyone has commented on it,” said Regina Cabaral, 48, a vendor of Duterte-themed T-shirts in Davao. “I hope and pray he will be slow to get angry and more patient, holding in the anger that he shows sometimes.”

China is among the most pressing issues. Outgoing President Benigno Aquino III challenged Beijing’s four-year maritime expansion into a Philippine exclusive economic zone by appealing to a United Nations tribunal. The move to put an international spotlight on the issue irritated Beijing. Aquino has also tapped U.S. military aid since 2014 to protect the Philippines in any conflict, making China bristle more.

Filipinos say they want Duterte to be clearer about whether he would meet China one on one, as Beijing has asked, or whether he would keep using larger agencies such as the U.N., or invite conflict, as suggested by his jet-ski idea.

“Hopefully what Duterte would want is at least to have a deal or a conversation that is peaceful,” said Michael John Polia, 31, a factory worker in Davao. “We don’t have the facilities, the forces and the boats against China.”

The president-elect has said he wants to talk to China — consistent with his style of meeting enemies such as a leftist guerrilla group that once terrorized Davao — but also respect the U.N. tribunal’s ruling.

“I won’t go to war over the Scarborough Shoal,” he told a business development conference in Davao recently, referring to a contested rocky outcropping 123 miles west of the Philippines. “It’s not a territory issue. It’s part of our exclusivity. But that’s not a thing to just say you’ll go to war.”

“We can’t go to war,” agreed Dennis Magno, 36, a contract automotive technician born in Davao. “China is a big country.”

Duterte won the election largely on pledges to stop crime, especially the drug trade. He threatened to kill criminals and thereby eradicate crime within six months. Davao residents already credit the 22-year mayor with making their agricultural hub city safer. People can walk at night without fear. Trade in drugs, particularly the methamphetamine derivative shabu, is down 75% from its peak, city spokesman Leo Villareal said.

Duterte faced criticism from election rivals and some Davao residents for using vigilante officers to kill as many as 1,400 suspected criminals without trial around 2001. But some argue that his unpredictability has kept crime rates low in the city, the country’s second largest with 1.6 million people.

“Because of the fame of his being a punisher, people wanted him to rule the country,” Villareal said.

Duterte has also said he would make Mindanao, the island where Davao is situated, a priority as president. The island has a fifth of the nation’s population, but lags behind in schools, roads, railways and industry. It’s poorer than the national average.

“I think he will really emphasize the development of Mindanao,” said Harvey Gamas, 28, an international studies associate professor at Ateneo de Davao University. Duterte might, for example, try to restart a stalled request for light rail in Davao.

Since the 1970s, rebel groups in Mindanao have massacred peopl and kidnapped foreigners; this year they beheaded a Canadian tourist. They want autonomy and a bigger share of the island’s productive land for farms and mines.

The president-elect has contacts with at least three rebel groups, including two occasionally violent Muslim ones, city officials say. He advocates a federalist system to give Muslim regions more autonomy. One Muslim rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, said this month it could accept that idea.

Duterte’s transitional government is meeting in Norway this month with a leftist umbrella group, the National Democratic Front, about an agenda for talks. He previously made peace in Davao with the New People’s Army, a militia that backs the Communist Party of the Philippines. 

“Unlike in other places where there are atrocities, here in Davao city, because he’s a friend of their commander, he can talk to them,” said Davao city publicist Bogs Abasolo.

Demonstrating his commitment to his hometown, Duterte has said he might govern for the first few months from Davao and commute to Manila as needed on 90-minute flights. He quipped about ghosts in the Malacanang presidential residence and said he doesn’t mind an awkward sleep schedule. But Duterte has reconsidered the idea after adding up the airfare for himself and aides, Abasolo said.

The president-elect can be “unpredictable,” Villareal acknowledged. Duterte angers easily and veers toward bold promises, scatological references and putdowns of women.

But as president, Duterte will change his approach, Abasolo insisted. 

“He is a lawyer, he knows what’s wrong and not,” Abasolo said. “The badmouthing and the curses he uttered in public engagement will not happen when he meets with foreign diplomats. The badmouthing, the cursing only happens because at the height of speeches he was getting mad because of what happened in his country. But as president he should act president-like.”

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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