By: Criselda Yabes

The tarpaulin election posters for a tribal chief in a village outside Davao City, on Mindanao Island, took me back to the past. I’d seen this man: before he was in police uniform. Today he was garbed in the costume of a datu, a tribal chief. In the 1980s, he was the city’s chief of police, rousing attention for organizing a vigilante group to fight against communist rebels. Now he has re-invented himself. 

That was a memory lost, when Davao’s insurgency was framed against the bitter civil war in Nicaragua. Davao City today has spurned its past and it has done more than that. The semblance of peace and order it has installed in recent years has been the envy of many, generating the enticing idea of putting the entire country’s wayward democracy back in shape via the election of Davao’s 70-year-old roughshod mayor, Rodrigo Duterte.

Images of the former police chief, pasted on a split-bamboo house, made me understand where the 2 million people of Davao were coming from.

Meet the Mayor

Today, it is Duterte who is rousing up the national electorate in his bid for the presidency in elections scheduled for next May – dividing the Philippines as ever over this huge and possibly fearful prospect.

Duterte has been called many names, hash-tagged by fans and haters alike. Just by announcing he would run in next year’s election, he has drawn the web of his legend around him and transformed the national debate. If it has come down to choosing a president who may be able to replicate Davao City throughout the archipelago, Duterte has probably succeeded in reawakening the nation’s subliminal quest for a strongman, last filled with disastrous consequences by Ferdinand Marcos, who nearly ruined the country.

The question is: what are Filipinos truly ready for?

Take a look at the man: His symbol is the fist. For many it exemplifies his tough action, of getting things done at all cost. For others, it characterizes his fascist tendencies. He is uncouth and foulmouthed – a personality undeniably suitable for the culture of the streets, his Visayan accent funky to his people but jarring to the ears of the elite in Luzon, which has ruled this country since independence from the US in 1946.

Why not a gunfight?

He’s been heating up the campaign, most lately by getting into a war of words with the administration’s chosen candidate Manuel A. Roxas, who is not doing so well in the surveys. Duterte belittled his Wharton degree. Roxas said he would slap him. No, a boxing match better yet. Why not a gunfight, Duterte shot back – as if they were children in a brawl abetted by the media. 

It is clear to people in Davao that their mayor has embraced himself as a thug – but one they could deal with to wipe out petty crime, making their Central 911, the emergency center, efficient (the building was part of the city tour), banning smoking in public places, cleaning up the streets, setting order to mass transport and the airport as well – all this to give you an idea of a model transformation from Nicaragua to micro-Singapore.

More than 20 years ago, people stayed indoors. I remember that I couldn’t leave my hotel without a safety check. The city was almost a ghost town. There’s no trace of that now. Looking out of my window from the 10th floor of the Marco Polo Hotel, I watched a demonstration of people waving red banners, marching peacefully under the shade of trees. It looked rehearsed, a protest that didn’t seem threatening at all.

It’s long been whispered that the mayor has made a pact with rebels and dissenters – that they could do as they please in his territory so long as they leave their trouble-making tactics behind, outside the walls of Davao.