By: Criselda Yabes

In December, considering the possibility that Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte might be a formidable candidate, Manila-based journalist Criselda Yabes visited Duterte’s stronghold and produced the following story, which ran in Asia Sentinel on Dec. 18. Duterte is now close to actually becoming president of the Philippines. We will know more overnight. But Yabes’ story deserves to be re-read, or to be presented to new readers.

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 71-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 never 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.

Checkpoints abound

At the border to the city, there are checkpoints on the lookout for vehicles carrying weapons, guns or knives. The inspections are thorough, carried out strictly by the army, not the police. Upon my reaching the hotel, the process is the same, so much so that a guest might either freak out in exasperation or develop a fondness for the guard dogs.

When I walked the streets, my eyes scanned the preened sidewalks. I know this is a major leap for a city in the Mindanao mainland, flanked by violence and poverty since the Muslim rebellions decades ago. It has become an oasis for the wild south, a cosmopolitan fusion of shopping and cuisine, trendy ethnic musicians and nature lovers.

And this is also where the warlords and rebels’ leaders and other kingpins prefer to stay in comfort. One notable visitor who built a mansion, surprisingly a couple of blocks from the 911 station, was the late Muslim governor of Maguindanao, Andal Ampatuan Sr., allegedly responsible for killing 58 people, including 35 media workers – the biggest massacre of journalists in world history –in late 2009.

The military is uneasy with Duterte’s private links with some people in the underground, so it’s said. It makes the counter-insurgency campaign murky. It has occurred to me that Duterte should have been made the governor of this entire difficult region. He could have outsmarted other disruptive clans of Mindanao, for he himself is a warlord of his own brand, made so with the blessings of a handful of elite families controlling plantations in and around the city.

The price of security

As everyone knows, putting Davao on the map came with a price. In a restaurant, my hosts had to lower their voices when the subject of the alleged “death squads” came up, even though this has gone through the grapevine in the early stages of Duterte’s term in office. The death squad that supposedly “cleaned up” the city of its dregs — as many as 1,000, according to Amando Doronila, writing in the Enquirer. With no proof of this to smack the mayor with human rights violations, still the mayor would boast of his impunity, the kind of talk often heard in his radio interviews in Davao.

One of my hosts was telling me that long ago she had tried to investigate a neighborhood where the families of the supposed victims lived, victims who were alleged drug dealers that “disappeared.” It was simple, she recounted: assassins on motorcycles – the kind that one could imagine in the movies, gunned them down.

One assassin came up to his target at a basketball game. He didn’t even bother covering his face with a mask, bandit-style. He appeared from a thicket, aimed and fired. There were witnesses but they could not describe the assassin’s face, as if that part of their vision had been voluntarily erased.

“Let’s stop talking about this,” my other host whispered when other customers were coming through the door of the restaurant. “Let’s continue this conversation in the car.” 

Was it better for Davao to turn a blind eye, sacrifice for the sake of a better place to live in, much in the way witnesses who had seen the assassin but could not describe his face?

Things best left unsaid

Just then, on cue, I got a call from a friend on my cell phone. I was giddy about Davao. I had done my shopping, discovering artisanal red wine and cheese. I had a splendid trip to the beach that took only a short boat ride. “Ok, but don’t talk politics,” she warned me right away. “Be careful, you’re from imperial Manila.”

I held myself in check: When was the last time I shouldn’t talk politics in public? When was the last time we had to hush ourselves before we get caught saying things others might not want to hear?

When Duterte, in an interview in Imperial Manila, said he would shut down Congress if it were to stray from his orders, I don’t know how many recoiled. How many retrieved the memory of martial law that was imposed in the 1970s? But after nearly 30 years of still-floundering democracy, those voted into Congress are mostly from the lot of dynastic families who have doubled since a new constitution. They’ve got their own fiefdoms too, as Duterte has built his.    

It was difficult for me to separate Duterte from the habitat he had created, the provincial setting in which he could play the local hero, surrounded outside by the whole madness of Mindanao. He has sprung to the top of the polls. A recent survey by Ateneo de Davao University gave him a 98 percent approval rating. If he wins, how would Duterte translate his feat in Davao to the country’s 74 provinces?

In my Imperial Manila, analysts have theorized that his coming to the fore was brought on by the dysfunction in our political culture, our inefficient governance that can’t put an end to the nightmarish traffic, bedlam at the airports, the crowded trains, and the general trend of inefficiency and corruption. 

Triggers to a revolution in place

If there are places that could trigger a revolution, it would be at the metro stations, where workers queue in snake lines for hours to get to work and home. Not a hint of a revolt came, not even after the roads had a spell of “carmageddon.” It was too much to ask of people to bear, but it goes on.

And with this Davao can gloat. The Duterte factor has added volatility as shown in the surveys, which until he made his announcement, had a neophyte senator Grace Poe at the top, an adopted daughter of a famous late action movie star.  

From all the candidates so far we have been pitched with drama, entertainment, ad hominem squabbles. We are losing out on the essence of change and leadership.

Anything could happen as the days draw closer to voting in May, that’s for certain in the Philippine scenario. It’s the nature of our political life to go for a ride yet again into uncertainty. There is just no telling how far my fellow 100 million citizens will be willing to go, what chances they are willing to take in the next round.

Criselda Yabes (yabescriselda@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel