Since his entry onto the world stage, the Philippines' president Rodrigo Duterte has earned widespread scorn from the West: He ordered a spree of extrajudicial killings, joked that soldiers under his command were free to rape women and favorably compared himself favorably to Hitler, to name a few newsworthy incidents.

These issues clearly haven't had much effect. His approval ratings hover around 70 percent — about the same as U.S. President Donald Trump's and UK Prime Minister Theresa May's combined. And while such enthusiastic levels of presidential support are not unusual in the Philippines, it's worth asking why Filipinos love him despite his brusque nature.

Rodrigo Roa Duterte, better known as "Digong," won the hearts of 16 million Filipinos during the 2016 presidential elections in the Philippines. While for casual international observers Duterte appeared from nowhere, he had a solid track record of domestic service. Duterte was one of the longest-serving mayors in the Philippines, having put in 22 years in the highly urbanized city of Davao in Mindanao, the country’s second-largest island group. When he bid for the presidency under the PDP-Laban political party, his eldest daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio took the mayoral seat while his son Paolo became the city’s vice mayor. His rivals say it's a political dynasty, but the people of Davao couldn't care less. For them, having the Dutertes as their leaders is something they would not trade for the world.


Credit: REUTERS/Lean Daval Jr

Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, eldest daughter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

In his interviews and speeches, Duterte often speaks the Visayan dialect – an idiom that represents the people of Visayas and Mindanao – a voice that links him with about 40 million Filipinos. President Duterte, 71, is a true-blooded “Bisaya” with his roots stretching across the provinces of Leyte, Cebu, Agusan, and Davao.

He hails from a family of lawyers and politicians, assuming his late father’s political career, who was a mayor in Danao, on the east coast of Cebu, and later a governor in Davao Province. He also served as a prosecutor for decades before becoming the vice mayor of Davao City. Yet this overtly political upbringing did nothing to tame his hard-hitting profanity or rough comments about critics, so why do Filipinos stand by him?

Filipinos are used to seeing and hearing leaders who project an image of benevolence, refinement, decency and good manners. The use of profanity was unheard of before Duterte; previous presidents spoke highly of other national leaders and their allies, despite their flaws. Presidents like Benigno Aquino III, who Duterte replaced, and predecessors like Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada, made a good impression on their international counterparts and foreign media alike.


Photo Credit:AP/達志影像

Former President and now Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal Arroyo smiles beside her neck brace during the opening session of the Philippine Congress before President Duterte delivers his first state of the nation address in July 2016.

But unlike them, President Duterte connects with people from all walks of life. He is a populist in the true sense of the word. The majority of Filipinos are poverty-stricken. Most wake at dawn to start making money to put food on the table. Even those who are already in their 80s are still working because they have mouths to feed.

Digong just strikes Filipinos on first sight as a man you would have no qualms about asking for help. People outside Davao were unaware of him until November 2013 when the brutal typhoon Haiyan made her first blush in the Philippines. The typhoon, which raged at a staggering 195 mph, killed more than 6,000 people across the country.

Duterte was the mayor of Davao City when Haiyan made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar. He was there in a heartbeat, along with a central 911 emergency service and medical team. Duterte was instrumental in bringing the service to Davao City during his time as mayor, and since August 2016, it has been in operation nationwide alongside a hotline for the public to air civic complaints. These highly visible acts of long-term public service and Duterte's presence at the scene impressed Filipinos.

Yes, his presence is what makes Filipinos admire him. In every catastrophe, he’s always there, and he has a habit of handling things well.


Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Candles left by relatives of victims of super typhoon Haiyan illuminate a mass grave site outside a church where mass is being held at the start of nine days of Christmas vigil masses in Palo, Leyte, central Philippines in December 16, 2013.

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay sent help to the typhoon victims as well, taking the opportunity to emblazon his name and face all over the aid trucks and packaged goods. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, but Filipinos fell for Duterte because he sent help to the victims with the tagline: “From the people of Davao City.”

Thus, the image of the selfless public servant who doesn’t pander for credit for the assistance he provides was secured. Of course, he was only doing the right thing. The help didn’t come from him alone; it’s from his city – from the Davaoeños.

The case for the drug war

During his presidential campaign, the obliteration of illegal drugs was one of Duterte’s main concerns, something that Filipinos were tired of dealing with in their day to day lives. When he took the presidential seat, he immediately started the Oplan Tokhang (Toktok – Hangyu), Visayan dialect for “Knock” (toktok) and “Plead” (hangyu) campaign. The cops knock on suspected drug user/pushers’ doors and ask them to surrender. This policy sometimes results in carnage. The drug suspects often make the first move, prompting the law enforcers to use their guns.

President Duterte has been condemned for human rights violations due to the bloodshed caused by Oplan Tokhang. According to The New York Times, the Philippines government puts suspect fatalities at fewer than 4,000, but Human Rights Watch claims there have been more than 12,000 victims.

The families of the killed drug suspects claim that everything was staged – that evidence was planted by cops. The only wrinkle to these claims is that hundreds of law enforcers have been killed in these encounters. Digong points out that the death of these criminals can’t change the fact that they have victimized people in the past, which is clearly a violation of human rights.

"Crime against humanity? In the first place, I'd like to be frank with you. Are they humans? What is your definition of a human being?" Duterte said in August 2016.

Duterte's war against drugs has been sensationalized not only locally, but also in foreign media. His efforts to eradicate illegal drugs created a bad impression internationally; which is something his millions of supporters contend was not his intention. Drug addicts rape women of all ages and kill them. They rob people who are working hard; who live hand to mouth just to support their families. Digong’s supporters ask: Would you cry for justice for criminals who will victimize more innocent people in the future, or would you want to protect the majority?

Filipinos are no strangers to having leaders with sugar-coated tongues. Yet, only a handful of them took public service seriously. President Duterte is not capable of talking kindly. You won’t hear him sweet talk. His jokes are terrible, and more often than not, they are used against him. He cusses like the most foul-mouthed street vendor, especially when it comes to illegal drugs, rapists, and murderers.

Filipinos, deep in their bones, are tired of leaders who dissemble. They rallied behind Digong, who can hardly even present himself in a decent manner in front of other world leaders; who chooses to pair his Barong Tagalog (Filipino version of suit) with faded jeans; who wants native Filipino food (that even the most underprivileged family can afford) served in Malacañan Palace. Digong is admired for his modesty.

Filipinos rallied behind a president who is not used to a lavish lifestyle; who terminates even his closest allies if he finds them doing things that run counter to his policies. This creed earned him the nickname "The Punisher", according to Time Magazine. Digong, in his unwavering fight against illegal drugs, has been supported by those who believe in him. Apparently, he is the only president hell-bent on obliterating this pathogen on society.

Filipinos didn’t know the gravity of the illegal drug problem until President Duterte started his war against it. Most of them learned that what they had been seeing was just the tip of an iceberg. Illegal drugs have long been a serious problem in the Philippines. Their effects spill out ad infinitum, but as Digong continues to wage his war, Filipinos remain hopeful.

The Catholic Church, which holds tremendous sway in the Philippines, has also expressed its disapproval of Duterte’s ways and his bloody war against drugs. He’s been criticized several times, but shot back by saying that not everyone is decent, even priests. He revealed that he was sexually abused by a Jesuit priest when he was still a minor, but chose not to complain about it as he was too young and feared the authorities.

Digong might be a tough-talking president with horrible jokes, but he has a frail heart. He feels for the poor. He feels for the victims of lawless violence. He hates the criminals and bluntly cusses them on national television. His rivals attack him for his style, or lack of it.

But President Duterte is no pushover, and just like him, his supporters are prepared to take some flack.

Too often in the international media, the voices of the Filipinos who support Duterte go unheard. Whatever you think of his polices, it is their opinions that will make the difference in our democracy. Here's a selection of reasons why Filipinos in the Philippines and around the region still support Duterte:

“Duterte is a strong-willed leader. He walks the talk and he is truly concerned about his countrymen’s welfare.” – Elizah Llera, Banker

“He’s the most practical and the best choice among the candidates. I felt his passion in serving the Filipinos and his eagerness to improve our lives.” – Michelle Go, Filipino Nurse in Singapore

“He’s a disciplinarian, a man of action, a fellow Bisaya, and the only deserving presidential candidate.” – Fred Gabales, Nurse

“I want corruption, job contractualism, illegal drugs, and lawless crimes to end. He is the only person I see that can make changes on these. He’s aggressive and fearless. Filipinos need a firm disciplinarian like him.” – Roxanne Araniador, Tattoo Artist

“I am desperate for change.” – Mark Real, Musician (Jeck Pilpil & Peacepipe Band)

“I saw command and results in President Duterte even before he confirmed he was going for the presidency. Davao City is evidence of how effective he is as a leader. I believe he can provide the discipline that the Filipino people truly needs.” – Daniela Prietos, Psychology Student (University of Negros Occidental Recoletos)

“President Duterte is tough on crimes. He is fair and a patriot who fights corruption. He’s looking out for the good of the country, and most of all, he fights radical extremists and terrorists.” – Generoso Aligato, Fisherman

“He is very down to earth. Despite having the highest position in the country, he remains humble. A firm disciplinarian, and is desperate to fight corruption and illegal drugs.” – Stephen Marie, Educator

“President Duterte promised to go after the illegal drugs problem in the Philippines at all costs, something that he never hid during his campaign. The Filipinos gave him the go signal to do his job. Unlike other politicians, he makes good on his promises. He can do anything he wants in pursuit of his mandate, waging the drug war because he is not beholden to anyone. He never begged for money from any interest that may be drug-tainted. He doesn’t have a strong party-influence. He did not beg us to vote and campaign for him. His concept of perpetuity is not prolonging his power or that of his party or interest, but by leaving a legacy because that was what he promised to us – to end his term with the Philippines way better than he started.” – Rechelle Palma, Businesswoman

“I believe in the rule of law, and I was so impressed with him when he was still a mayor. Basically, I was trained by my parents to be a law-abiding citizen, and I get irritated when people try to get away with violations. So I dreamed of having a president who could properly implement rules, but still have a heart.” – Khyria, Baker

“My love and loyalty brought me back in the year 2002 when I first set foot in Davao City. The mayor, as he was then, had a foul-mouth. Crude as he was with his opponents, he was already a loving mayor to his people. I finally understand what has been taught about the government; of the people, by the people, and for the people. So, I knew without a doubt, he can make the Philippines a better country to live in.” – Hearty Dizon, Call Center Employee

“I voted for Duterte not only because I believe in his capacity to lead our nation, but also because of his accomplishments as a Mayor, Congressman, and Prosecutor. He is known for his compassionate and dedicated nature as a servant and leader. I have witnessed it myself for the past 20 years as a resident of Davao City. He’s very down to earth; his heart is with the poor and he is very approachable. Most of all, he hates corruption and illegal drugs.” – Nexie Roldan, Davaoeño

“Digong was known for being a crime buster long before he ran for the presidency. I believe he possesses the competence to be a leader and wipe out all crimes in the country. Corruption in the government is insane, and just like me, my fellow Filipinos are frantic to finally see changes. I believe he is the person who can help us. In Davao City, rules and public discipline (anti-smoking, firecracker ban, speed limit, and more) are strictly implemented. Violators would end up in the streets for community service or in jail.” – Vanessa Nona, Davaoeño

President Duterte might have a big mouth. He doesn’t know that his jokes are awful that makes him look like the villain. But he is a hero to many Filipinos – the man who would stake his life in pursuit of giving his people a safe and better Philippines.

Read Next: Putting Duterte’s Popularity into Perspective

Editor: David Green