Dubbed ‘the punisher’, the controversial politician’s tough stance on crime and corruption is winning hearts and minds.
Guns line the walls of his home.
He is accused of killing suspected criminals. He kisses female supporters on the lips and litters his campaign speeches with an endless stream of obscenities – he has even cursed the pope.
It’s hardly presidential behaviour, and he is not your average presidential candidate. But Rodrigo Duterte could be the next leader of the Philippines.
He’s the most outrageous, the most colourful and the most interesting character in this upcoming presidential election… We like to compare him to Trump of the US because he likes to shock with his statements. He can be very irreverent and very reckless.
“I would rather lose the election than lose my identity,” the unrepentant mayor of the southern city of Davao tells Al Jazeera.
Polls have consistently placed Duterte among the top contenders in the Philippines’ presidential elections scheduled for May 9.
He has won legions of fans for transforming Davao from a city plagued by drugs, gangs and murders into one of the country’s safest. But critics accuse him of using death squads to rid the city of suspected criminals.
“He’s the most outrageous, the most colourful and the most interesting character in this upcoming presidential election,” says Marites Vitug, an author and investigative journalist.
“We like to compare him to Trump of the US because he likes to shock with his statements. He can be very irreverent and very reckless,” she says.
Like US presidential candidate Donald Trump, Duterte knows how to make headlines, often using controversial claims to challenge the political establishment.
His entire style is unorthodox. It’s 3am on a recent Tuesday night when Mr Duterte finally arrives for an interview with Al Jazeera.
Despite the late hour and his punishing campaign schedule, the 71-year-old is bright-eyed and energetic.
He is used to keeping late hours. Duterte regularly checks up on Davao’s police and ambulance services at night to make sure no one is sleeping on the job. He demands excellence from civil servants and fires any official found guilty of corruption.
‘The punisher’ and his mission
Duterte has pledged to replicate his take-no-prisoners approach if elected to the highest office in the land.
“I will solve drugs, criminality and corruption in three to six months,” he says. “I am the only remaining card left for the Filipinos to deal with the situation.”
In one of Asia’s most crime-ridden countries, Duterte’s tough-on-crime mantra has won him widespread support. His campaign rallies attract thousands of screaming fans, with women jostling for the chance to get within reaching distance of the man nicknamed “the punisher”.
His eclectic band of supporters includes members of a popular religious sect, the “Kingdom of Heaven”, which has a reported seven million followers and is helping to fund his campaign.
He is also popular with Mindanao’s Muslim rebels, who have been locked in a decades-long battle with the government over land and resources.
During an interview in a remote jungle camp in rebel-controlled territory, Rolando Olamit, a commander with the Moro National Liberation Front, tells Al Jazeera why he wants to see Duterte elected.
“We believe Duterte can provide peace, can help the conflict in Mindanao, especially the poor people of Mindanao … We’ve been waiting for this moment for decades,” says Olamit.
When it comes to politics, Duterte is very much an outsider. He doesn’t come from the dominant family dynasties that have formed the country’s political elite. And unlike other presidential candidates, he has not been tarnished by allegations of corruption.
For many, that makes him a refreshing change in a country that has endured the corrupt excesses of leaders for generations.
“He’s the one who can solve issues here in the country … A lot of presidents in the past just made promises, did nothing, and travelled abroad on our dime. I want a president who can help Filipinos. And mayor Duterte has shown that he can improve the lives of many,” says Davao resident Violeta Hebthil.
Death squads and unsolved murders
But Duterte faces other serious accusations. Rights activists claim that he has used death squads to kill hundreds of suspected criminals.
He admits to killing three kidnappers but Duterte has never been charged with any crimes and denies ordering extrajudicial hits.
“That’s impossible, I do not need to set up death squads,” Duterte tells Al Jazeera.
You have to strike fear in the criminals, but you have to nurture this sense of security in the law-abiding citizens of the city or this republic.
But a string of more than 1,000 unsolved murders, with many of the victims teenagers, has raised doubts about Duterte’s denials. Independent investigators have documented how many of those killed were innocent victims mistaken for criminals.
“If he has a penchant for dismissing judicial process, a penchant for doing swift justice, then what does that say for his regard for popular decision-making … for popular processes or democratic processes?” asks journalist Vitug.
Duterte’s unabashed affection for Ferdinand Marcos, a former Filipino president who declared martial law in the 1970s, also has observers worried.
During Marcos’ reign, tens of thousands were arrested and tortured, and hundreds more killed.
“Duterte has not really gone all out for martial law, but he has a tendency as a strongman to go towards this direction,” says Vitug.
Duterte denies that he has a “messiah complex” and says the only people he plans to take action against are those who break the law.
“You have to strike fear in the criminals, but you have to nurture this sense of security in the law-abiding citizens of the city or this republic,” he says.
Having only served in politics at the local level, Duterte is untested when it comes to international affairs, but his approach to international diplomacy is already ringing alarm bells.
On one of the most controversial issues facing the region – the battle for control of islands in the South China Sea – Duterte says he will start talks with China. If negotiations break down, he vows to take the fight directly to Beijing.
“I will bring the flag of the Philippines, and I will walk to their airport and plant the Filipino flag,” he says.
If that fails, he says he will sail to the South China Sea to reclaim the islands himself.
“I would not allow … the sacrificing of soldiers lives in the armed forces of the Philippines, I would rather go there and you can waste me if you want,” he says.
Controversial and unapologetic, Duterte has told this nation of 100 million to “either take him as he is or don’t vote for him”.
His uncompromising stance has ruffled more than a few feathers, but among an electorate that is tired of broken promises, Duterte’s strongman reputation makes him a serious contender.