RODRIGO DUTERTE became mayor in 1988, two years after the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos. The coastal city was at the centre of a communist insurgency which had erupted against the Marcos regime.
New People’s Army rebels were using the city as a testing ground for urban guerilla warfare — assassinations, bombings and disappearances were common. In a vicious war of attrition, the rebels targeted police, the military and local officials, while the authorities hit back at suspected communist sympathisers.
Some locals say when Duterte came to power, he proved to be more effective in the use of violence than the rebels or criminals.
Alongside the crime crackdown, Duterte built support with his man-of-the-people persona. He is perceived as frugal and plain-living. The home where he still lives when in Davao is an unassuming two-story property behind a green metal gate. He eats at unpretentious restaurants and is fond of durian.
As mayor, he also slashed red tape. Applications for most permits and approvals must be decided within three days, local officials say. Many of the service windows at the city tax office are open through the lunch hour. The schedule is meant to minimise waiting time. Duterte says he hates seeing citizens queuing.
Rules and regulations were strictly enforced. Firecrackers, dangerous but very popular in the Philippines, are outlawed, a policy Duterte promises to enforce nationwide next year. Smoking in public is banned. Jaywalkers face US$4 (RM17) fines and orders to perform community service. Bars and restaurants must stop serving alcohol at 1am. There is a 10pm curfew on unaccompanied minors.
Despite the strictness of these restrictions, Duterte is no prude. Prostitution is tolerated with registered sex workers required to undergo regular health checks, according to a city official. The authorities check to ensure they are not working under coercion or threat. And the city holds a Christmas party for sex workers, the official said.
The mayor enhanced his image with a weekly radio-and-television talk show, Gikan sa Masa, Para sa Masa — From the Masses, For the Masses. Here, Duterte would take complaints from residents and issue peremptory corrective orders. It became a must for city officials, including the local police, to listen and watch his Sunday programme: They would not want to miss his on-the-spot instructions, usually delivered with curses and rebukes.
Everywhere in the city there is evidence of the personality cult he fostered. At one of the more popular restaurants, Marina Tuna, which specialises in the fish for which the city is known, a Duterte cut-out greets guests on the entry stair. The markets are full of Duterte memorabilia and T-shirts.
With echoes of Maoist China, a national “learn from Davao” movement is under way. Delegations of visitors from around the country fly in to study the city’s blueprint for order, growth and development, local officials say. Overwhelmed with up to 22 groups visiting a day, a United States-style 911 emergency response centre built by Duterte was forced to restrict access, according to operators at the centre.
Poverty levels in the Davao region, which includes the city, are down, and in 2014 the region grew 9.3 per cent – a statistic Duterte often cites when he boasts of his hometown. He usually follows this with a reminder it is safe to walk the streets at night. This security, he says, created the conditions for investment and growth.
The city hosts a thriving business process outsourcing industry providing call centres, telemarketing and online language tutoring for local and foreign companies. Local outsourcing-business owners give Duterte credit for providing the environment
“We need parents to be comfortable young people can go out at 10pm and come home early in the morning,” growing outsource service provider Six Eleven Global Teleservices chief executive officer Michael Bian says.
Davao business people and officials also credit Duterte with having the confidence to delegate to experts. He has adopted the same approach as president, business leaders say, appointing experienced economic managers.
“He has surrounded himself with a very good team. They are doers,” says American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines executive director Ebb Hinchliffe.
Apart from a few gleaming modern malls, most of the commercial areas and residential neighbourhoods in Davao are full of ramshackle buildings packed along narrow, bumpy roads. Tin shacks on stilts line fetid waterways. Public transport is limited and the drainage system is widely acknowledged to be inadequate, according to local business people and international development agencies.
Public security inside the city limits is dramatically improved compared with the 1980s. But Davao still ranks first among 15 Philippine cities for murder and second for rape, according to police crime data from 2010 to 2015. And a dire security climate across most of the rest of Mindanao, where separatist and terrorist groups remain active, poses a serious threat to efforts for further development.
A bomb detonated in a crowded night market in Davao on Sept 2, killed 15 people and injured dozens. Authorities say the suspects arrested for the bombing belonged to a radical faction of a Muslim rebel group.
In an interview with Reuters during the election campaign, Duterte explained his vision for how law and order are essential to prosperity.
He arrived in his trademark jeans, open-necked shirt and shoes without socks. Unlike many politicians, he didn’t ask for questions in advance. When he was not able to answer queries about taxes or the budget, he said so. He took no offence when asked about reports of his rumoured romances: The government’s “bible” is the constitution, he said, and it says nothing about womanising.
Enhanced security, he said, was the only way to build a stable economy. When asked why people should vote for him, he pointed to his achievements in Davao as “exhibit A”.
“It’s not for the faint-hearted,” he said. “If you are a president and you are afraid of criminals, or you are afraid to kill criminals, then you have no business being a president.” — Reuters