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A reluctant presidential candidate

/ 12:23 AM February 08, 2015
Duterte at the wake of slain Special Action Force commando SPO1 Lover Inocencio. GERMELINA LACORTE

Duterte at the wake of slain Special Action Force commando SPO1 Lover Inocencio. GERMELINA LACORTE

Inside a hotel room bursting with medical students from India, a scene unfolded early in January worthy only of a Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City.

In a corner stood a beleaguered Indian businessman tagged by police as liable for illegal detention after locking up Indian medical students of Davao Medical School Foundation (DMSF) in a dormitory for delayed rent. The students sought Duterte’s help.

“Get a lawyer and defend yourself,” the tough-talking mayor told Dr. Ashin Mohan, the Indian businessman. “I won’t file a case against you, but you will have to defend yourself in court,” Duterte said.

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Later, he would tell Mohan to stop collecting exorbitant fees from the students.

Turning to the students, Duterte told them to return to their dorm. “If you’re still aggrieved, come directly to us,” he said.

India not Philippines

But the students were not appeased. “We don’t want to go back to the dorm anymore,” one said. “We want to stay somewhere else.”

This prompted Dr. David Pillai, president of Transworld Education Academy, the India-based company that recruited the students from India for DMSF, to argue. Renting another place might jeopardize the students’ education, Pillai said.

“Excess of freedom is not good,” the businessman said. “I am responsible for you,” he told the students.

He said that in India, their parents wanted to send them to Davao because of two things—DMSF was a good medical school and Davao City was a safe place because of the mayor’s tough stance against crimes.

“But you have to stay inside the dormitory for your security,” Pillai said. “You are my responsibility.”

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Duterte cut him short. “I don’t know anything about your laws in India, but in this country, no one can compel anyone where he chooses to live,” he said, generating applause from the students.

“What I give you as protection is for everybody,” the mayor told the students. “We expect you to do the same thing to Filipinos in India.”

‘Listening tour’

Scenes like this endear Duterte to the common crowd. But after more than 30 years in politics, 22 of them as mayor of Davao City, he continues to boggle supporters: Will he run for president in 2016 or not?

Even in his “listening tour” in the Visayas and Luzon, where supporters package him as a presidential contender, Duterte continues to deny aspiring to the country’s highest government position.

His body language, however, tells a different story.

His frequent forays outside Mindanao, his involvement in problems beyond Davao City, his increasing affinity with critics of government—even his failure to kill people behind the Duterte for President Movement, as he has vowed—may hint of a higher ambition.

When asked about the “listening tour” that brought him to the cities of Butuan, Zamboanga and Pagadian, and in key cities in the Visayas and Luzon, Duterte said he merely acceded to the presidential tag because he was “forced” by organizers to give the federalism campaign a face.

“They threatened me,” he said in his Sunday TV program “Gikan Sa Masa, Para Sa Masa,” prompting his coanchor, lawyer Geraldine Chiu, to ask, “Mayor Duterte is now being threatened?”

Face of federalism

“I had to agree, just to give a face to the campaign for federalism,” the mayor said, adding that it would be awkward to lead the campaign and not be its face.

The Duterte-as-presidential-candidate scenario comes at a time when two perceived leading candidates in 2016—Vice President Jejomar Binay and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas—are going through a crisis of sorts, distinct from each other. Binay faces corruption allegations while Roxas’ projection as Mr. Clean has all but improved his popularity.

Credited with cleaning up Davao City of drugs and crimes, Duterte has been criticized for his cavalier attitude toward human rights.

But as a student of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” Duterte has a penchant to turn weakness into strength, openly declaring in a Senate inquiry last year that he would kill suspected rice smuggler David Bangayan if Bangayan was caught smuggling in the city. The bravado won him supporters and enemies. His supporters formed the Duterte for President Movement.

First from Mindanao

If elected President, Duterte will be the first from Mindanao.

There will be no dearth of support for Duterte, said former Gov. Manny Piñol of North Cotabato province, a Duterte supporter.

“With the poor showing of Roxas, it’s not even remote for the President to adopt him (Duterte) as a standard-bearer of the administration,” Piñol said.

“It’s up to Mayor Duterte to declare whether or not he is running” he said. “But at the moment, the ‘listening tour’ will test the ground swell for his candidacy.”

The listening tour started on Jan. 22 in Butuan City and has already covered Zamboanga and Pagadian (via phone patch), provinces of Cebu and Bulacan, key cities in Luzon and the Visayas, and campus tours in key universities in Manila.

Until now, Duterte won’t be categorical about his plans. He, however, continues to whet the appetite of his believers by declaring what he would and would not do if he were President, among them being open to a coalition government with communist rebels.

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TAGS: Geraldine Chiu, Jejomar Binay, Manny Piñol, Mar Roxas, Rodrigo Duterte
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