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Tough-Talking Philippine Mayor On Track To Become Next President

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Voters in the Philippines went to polls today to choose a new president. Unofficial returns show the tough-talking mayor of a city called Davao has defeated the four other candidates by a wide margin. Michael Sullivan reports that the mayor's message of rooting out crime and corruption is resonating in a country with too much of both.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Like Donald Trump, who foreign observers can't resist comparing him to, Rodrigo Duterte is an outsider. He's from the far south, not part of the powerful Manila elite that has kept a tight grip on the political and economic fortunes of this country for decades. He's a foul-mouthed crime fighter whose brutal crackdown on criminals in his own city won him the support of many voters nationwide today - voters like Gwen Marcella, who cast her vote in Manila's Malate district early this morning.

GWEN MARCELLA: I mean, he's the kind of guy who will do what he has promised. Like, when he says one thing, he will do it, as compared to other politicians who say one thing and then do another.

SULLIVAN: Her sister, Grace, says she's not much bothered by Duterte's vulgar speech, the swearing - even at the pope - or the rape jokes, that kind of thing.

GRACE MARCELLA: Mayor Duterte is a different take on leadership. And I think most Filipinos are ready for this kind of change. I think the foul mouth is just part of his personality, but he doesn't really mean it.

SULLIVAN: It's a personality that more people will have to get used to after Duterte thumped the two candidates who were his nearest competitors, including the one backed by the outgoing president, Benigno Aquino III.

ARIES ARUGAY: The message is clear.

SULLIVAN: Aries Arugay teaches political science at the University of the Philippines. He says Duterte's decisive victory was a vote against a political elite that was tone deaf when it came to the mood of the electorate.

ARUGAY: The Filipino political elites just were concentrated on navel-gazing. They were just focused too much on either plundering the country or just their petty squabbles with one another, not building accountable institutions, and therefore the Filipino voters don't have any other choice but to vote those that are able to present themselves as outsiders to this very, very exclusive circle of the Philippine political class.

SULLIVAN: Duterte has vowed a bloody war against criminals if they don't get in line, a war similar to the one he waged in Davao, where human rights groups say hundreds of people were killed in extrajudicial killings during the time Duterte was mayor.

CARLOS CONDE: He's shown in Davao that there's not - that's not hyperbole. He's shown in Davao that he can do it.

SULLIVAN: That's Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch, who worries about the signal a Duterte presidency could send to other like-minded lawmakers nationwide.

CONDE: What would stop a mayor from thinking that oh, Duterte won, so I must be able to get away with some of his methods? And he doesn't even have to say it. It's this whole idea that what he's doing erodes the whole principle of human rights and rule of law.

SULLIVAN: Duterte has also signaled he may be more willing to engage China when it comes to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, disputes that have drawn the Philippines closer to the U.S. But for now, his main task will be to make good on his pledge to make a serious dent in crime and corruption in his first six months in office, a clean break from the past despite his dirty mouth. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.