MANILA — It seems to be the season for tough-talk politics.
As the United States adjusts to the rise of Donald Trump, the Philippines, a former colony and longtime ally, is observing the rise of its own populist phenom, presidential front-runner Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte, a motorcycle-riding, rape-joke-making mayor, is the favorite heading into the Philippines’ presidential vote Monday, commanding a solid but not certain lead over a pack of challengers with strong links to the country’s political and showbiz elite.
The election centers on domestic issues such as crime, corruption, poverty and transportation. At stake are years of solid economic gains under the current president, Benigno Aquino III.
But with China pressing its claims in the South China Sea and the U.S. military increasing its presence on Philippine soil, questions of foreign policy are coming to the fore. The vote will have global implications — which is why Duterte has people talking.
It’s easy to see how Duterte has drawn comparisons to Trump. They are both self-professed political outsiders with a penchant for tough talk and shocking turns of phrase. Both have made misogynistic comments. And both are very — and somewhat unexpectedly — popular.
The “Trump of the East” sobriquet undersells some of Duterte’s more surprising positions — he has publicly backed death squads; the Donald merely endorses torture — and does little to explain his popularity here.
For many Filipinos, Duterte is the candidate of change.
Politics here has long been a family affair, with oligarchic clans dominating public life and often private business, too.
The current president, Aquino, is the son of a former president. His hand-picked successor, Manuel Roxas II, is the grandson of a former president. Among the vice-presidential hopefuls is Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the country’s former dictator.
Grace Poe, long thought to be Duterte’s biggest competitor, is the adopted daughter of one of the country’s most-loved movie stars. Before becoming a senator in 2013, she lived for years in the United States.
Duterte, meanwhile, comes from the country’s less-developed south and spent more than two decades running Davao City in Mindanao, where he reportedly patrolled the streets on a Harley-Davidson in a bid to stop crime. When a reporter from Time magazine visited “the punisher” in 2002, Duterte was drinking brandy with a .38-caliber pistol tucked in his waistband.
Supporters see him as different from the rest of the pack.
“There is lingering hostility among middle-class and lower-middle-class voters against elite domination of politics and the economy, despite strong growth under Aquino,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Critics wonder how Duterte’s sharp-tongued showmanship will translate in terms of policy. His tough-on-crime stance is attractive to many voters, but he also seems to support official impunity, threatening to “kill all” suspected criminals or “joking” that he wished he had “been first” to rape an Australian nun who was murdered in a 1989 prison riot.
In a June 2015 report, “The rise of the Philippines’ death squad mayor,” Phelim Kine, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, traced Duterte’s history of endorsing the summary killing of suspected criminals.
“Duterte’s boastful brand of violent impunity should be a path to prosecution, not a platform for political office,” he wrote.
The Philippines’ next president faces a daunting challenge in terms of balancing relations with two big powers: China and the United States.
China claims much of the South China Sea, based on maps with a U-shaped, dashed line that cuts into exclusive maritime economic zones claimed by the Philippines and others. China has been constructing man-made islands and reefs, complete with airstrips and docking facilities, and many worry that Beijing will soon start construction work at a new location, the Scarborough Shoal.
Beijing’s island-building is bringing the Philippines and the United States back together — much to China’s dismay. A new defense pact allows the U.S. military to build facilities at five Philippine military bases, while a growing number of ships are anchoring at the former U.S. base at Subic Bay, not far from where Chinese ships are patrolling.
Duterte’s challengers have generally expressed some degree of support for the Aquino government’s South China Sea stance, saying they will back Manila’s move to challenge China at a United Nations-appointed tribunal in the Hague rather than immediately press for bilateral talks.
Duterte has not been clear on how he would proceed. He said he might be willing to negotiate directly with China or could be persuaded to “put aside” disputes if Beijing, say, built some trains in his home region.
If that doesn’t work, Duterte has another plan: Ride a Jet Ski to the Scarborough Shoal and plant the Philippine flag.His seemingly off-the-cuff remarks on the crisis have scholars in Manila worried.
Jay L. Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea called Duterte’s comments “dangerous.”
The idea that big-ticket infrastructure spending could resolve the dispute is “music to the ears of the Chinese government,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor at Manila’s De La Salle University and author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: The USA, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific.”
Duterte’s words also resonated with those who have much to lose as China’s ships press south.
Domingo C. Cabacungan Jr., 44, a fisherman in the town of Infante, just east of the Scarborough Shoal, has been chased by Chinese coast guard ships while working in the disputed waters. He said Duterte was the only candidate with the strength to stand up to China.
“He has a heart of stone,” he said.