MANILA, Philippines — Filipinos streamed to heavily guarded polling stations Monday, capping a presidential race expected to hand power to a tough-talking mayor who managed to keep his lead despite comments about bashing the pope and joking about a rape.
Rodrigo Duterte, the bombastic and unflinchingly authoritarian mayor of the country’s third-largest city, Davao, was the heavy favorite, with backers portraying him as a crime-busting savior. Critics, though, worry about a return to the strongman politics of the past in a country that is one of Washington’s closest allies in the region.
More than 140,000 police officers and soldiers were deployed throughout the country and the roughly 36,000 voting centers across 7,100 islands. The Philippines has a long tradition of election violence, fueled by lax enforcement of laws and politicians with private armies.
Just before the polls opened, seven people were killed and one was wounded when a group of armed men attacked a vehicle outside the capital, Manila. Chief Superintendent Wilben Mayor, spokesman of the Philippine National Police, said the victims — all supporters of a local mayor — were shot in the head.
It will take days for the final count, with some results possible as early as Tuesday.
But preelection polls showed a double-digit lead by Duterte, who goes by nicknames such as “the punisher” and “Duterte Harry” — a local twist on the movie lawman “Dirty Harry.”
“I think he he’ll bring about the change we all long for,” said Mhanwell Duran, 19, as he waited to cast his vote.
The race between Duterte and four challengers was fought primarily on domestic issues, including crime, corruption and transportation. With China pressing its claims in the South China Sea and the United States boosting its military role in the Philippines, foreign relations also loomed large.
But the contest came to be defined by Duterte’s rhetorical fireworks. The 71-year-old has made headlines for, among other comments, calling Pope Francis “a son of a whore” in a predominately Roman Catholic nation and saying he wished he had “been first” to rape an Australian woman killed in 1989 prison riot.
And there’s even a promised stunt: vowing to ride a Jet Ski to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
The longtime mayor’s brash comments have earned him comparisons to Donald Trump and tag lines such as “Trump of the East.”
Duterte dislikes the notion — “Trump is a bigot, I am not,” he said — but does not bristle at another word used to describe him: dictator. He said he would dissolve the country’s congress and install a “revolutionary government” if he needs to.
“I am a dictator? Yes, it is true,” he said.
But many Filipinos seem to gravitate to his combative ways, seeing him as a political outsider who can shake up the status quo.
In the Philippines, democracy is a family business. President Benigno Aquino III is the son of a former president. Presidential hopeful Manuel Roxas II’s grandfather once ruled the country. Among the candidates for vice president: Bongbong Marcos, son of the disgraced 1980s-era ruler Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda.
Although the country has had solid economic growth under Aquino, poverty and inequality persist. Many voters think that Aquino failed to deliver real change and are drawn to Duterte’s big promises.
“This is a fight against the administration,” said Edmund Tayao, a professor of political science at University of Santo Tomas, in Manila. “It’s a protest vote because it’s an anti-establishment vote.”
Unlike Aquino and others, Duterte made his name in the Philippines’ less-developed south. He spent more than 20 years as the mayor of Davao, in Mindanao, where he patrolled the streets on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and gave interviews with a pistol tucked in his waistband.
As mayor, he made tackling crime his signature issues, but his law-and-order campaigns included the summary execution of criminals. A 2015 Human Rights Watch report traced the rise of Davao’s “death squad mayor.”
Rather than distance himself from title during the campaign, Duterte seemed to welcome it, musing, mafia-like, about this plans to “kill all” of the criminals and feed their bodies to fish. He has promised to eliminate crime and corruption in six months.
On foreign policy, Duterte is seen as something of a wild card. The next president faces the unenviable task of trying to balance China as it presses its maritime claims off the Philippine coast and to safeguard the alliance with the United States, which seeks to increase its military presence in the area in response.
Duterte has said he would consider putting aside differences with China if Beijing offered some big-ticket infrastructure in his home district.
Assuming he holds his lead in the final tally, the question is how Duterte plans to deliver on his tough talk.
“His cabinet members will have many things to do in terms of giving him advice more or less consistent to the national interest because he is not really into national policy,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reform, in Manila.
“But the problem is,” Casiple added, “he is not listening to his advisers . . . when they are telling him to shut his mouth.”