By: Our Correspondent

The decision by Rodrigo Duterte, the gun-toting mayor of Davao City, to enter the Philippine presidential sweepstakes at virtually the last minute complicates the always circus-like politics that have characterized the country for decades.

The national elections, set for July 1, 2016, are of more than average importance to the Philippines because the country has had a relatively successful six years under President Benigno S. Aquino III, with a substantial cleanup in corruption although a lot remains to be done.  The country has risen from a score of 105th of 175 countries in 2012 to 85th in the 2014 poll by Transparency International. After the 12 years between former Presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, there is hope that the reform movement can continue with the new president next year.

With four candidates already in the race, it is uncertain whose votes would be cannibalized by the 70-year-0ld Duterte, who won his spurs by serving as Davao City for 22 years, with two periods out to serve in the national congress, by reportedly reducing crime from triple digits per 1,000 people to 0.8 per 10,000 from 1999 to 2005, allegedly, according to his critics, by sanctioning death squads to eliminate petty thugs, something he has rather unconvincingly denied.  In a country where street crime is endemic, his appeal may grow, with the number of crimes including theft, car theft, assault and rape, up by 46 percent year-on-year for the first six months of 2015 according to the Philippine National Police Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management. 

Duterte is more complicated than his cowboy image makes him appear. He has given formal representation to the indigenous Lumad and Muslim communities, mandated an anti-discrimination ordinance, used city funds to build a US$250,000 drug rehab center and has offered a monthly allowance to addicts committed to kicking the habit. Duterte has also sought to negotiate with the Communist New People’s Army and has advocated diplomacy over armed action.

How much chance Duterte has is unsure given his late entry into the race, more than a month after the official deadline after waffling for months. Election rules provide for a party to replace one nominated candidate with another of the same party. Among those who did file for the presidency was the secretary-general of the PDP-Laban, Martin Dino. Although Duterte says he won’t be a substitute candidate, the betting is that he will replace Dino before the closing on Dec. 10.

Sen. Grace Poe, despite questions about her citizenship, continues to lead the race by a wide margin, according to the Pulse Asia poll released last week. Poe, regarded as a reformer, has the approval of 39 percent of respondents, with Vice President Jejomar Binay, who had led the polls for months, having fallen to 24 percent over unexplained millions of dollars that ended up in his pockets and a huge hacienda that he claims he doesn’t own in Batangas. Manuel A. Roxas, Aquino’s choice to succeed him, is mired well back at 21 percent after leading Binay slightly in a previous poll. Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who acknowledges she is suffering from breast cancer, finishes the field with 11 percent. 

Poe’s lead has continued to widen, up from 30 percent in a survey at the beginning of June.  The poll, the first since the Oct. 16 deadline to file, was conducted among 3,400 respondents nationwide and according to Pulse Asia, it has a margin error of plus or minus 1.7 percent.