Rodrigo Duterte profile: The provocative but popular Philippines strongman

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech as he witnesses the arrival of a shipment of Sinovac Biotech COVID-19 vaccines at Ninoy Aquino International Airport on February 28, 2021 in Manila, Philippines.Image source, Getty Images
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Rodrigo Duterte is both hugely popular and controversial

When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took the stage in October last year in Manila, he was expected to announce his candidacy for the upcoming election.

Since the country's constitution only allows a single six-year term for presidents, he had earlier said he would run for vice-president. Instead, he told Filipinos that he was retiring from politics.

It was a shock announcement from the 77-year-old populist leader who had won by a landslide in 2016 on the back of hardline promises to tackle crime and corruption.

Mr Duterte's critics were sceptical. He even appeared to briefly change his mind in November when reports claimed that he was about to register his candidacy for vice-president, going up against his daughter, Sara Duterte, who was also running for the post. But he didn't.

Six months on, Mr Duterte's term is nearing an end - the Philippines voted in a new leader in the May 2022 election.

His is a contentious legacy. A hugely popular leader, he is also fiercely opposed and criticised for his sexist comments, allegations of sexual abuse and human rights violations, and a violent crackdown on drugs that has left tens of thousands of Filipinos dead.

The road to Manila

Rodrigo "Digong" Duterte was born in 1945 in the southern Philippines. His mother was a teacher and his father, a public official, later entered politics and became the governor of Davao. The Dutertes were well-connected to powerful clans in the south, where they still remain popular.

The younger Mr Duterte trained as a lawyer and rose to become state prosecutor, eventually becoming mayor of Davao in 1988.

Married twice, he has four children. He is officially single, but has claimed to have several girlfriends.

Mr Duterte built his reputation fighting some of the Philippines' biggest problems - crime, militancy and corruption - in Davao during his 22-year term as mayor. Mr Duterte told the BBC he had shot dead three men while he was mayor, confirming an earlier statement.

Human Rights Watch described him as the death squad mayor - estimating that more than 1,000 people were killed with no legal process in the city under him.

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Extra-judicial killings of suspected drug dealers have been a hallmark of Mr Duterte's presidency

It was his track record from Davao that won him nationwide support when he ran for president. And he knew it: "If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I'd kill you," he said at his final campaign rally.

He said in a televised debate that he would kill his own children if they took drugs. And when his son and son-in-law were accused of being involved in drug smuggling, he promised to resign if they were indeed guilty.

His 2016 campaign, the BBC's Howard Johnson wrote, was "littered with obscenities and populist promises but light on details".

He joked about the rape of an Australian missionary murdered in a prison riot in 1989, and proposed mass executions of suspected criminals.

Self-styled as both a socialist and a reformist, he promised sweeping political changes and greater federalism, but critics warned that without reforms at the local level, this would only hand unchecked power to regional clans.

'Duterte Harry'

But what brought him global notoriety was his relentless war on drugs.

He was dubbed "Duterte Harry", a reference to Dirty Harry, the eponymous fictional American detective played by Clint Eastwood who takes the law into his own hands. Mr Duterte openly encouraged citizens and the police to shoot and kill suspected drug dealers and users. Noting that there are three million addicts in the Philippines, he said he would be "happy to slaughter them".

Read more about the Philippines under Duterte

The killings, which often involved people being gunned down on the streets or in alleys by unidentified men, sparked outrage and international condemnation. But they also had the support of many Filipinos who lauded Mr Duterte's "tough" stance on street crime. On a particularly brutal night, police said they had killed 32 people in drug raids in the Bulacan province.

Police insisted they only killed in self-defence during drug busts. But families and human rights advocates, furious and aghast, protested that the killings were akin to executions. The dead included teens, and even a mayor and his wife.

In 2017, the entire police force - 1,200 officers - in Manila district was relieved of duty after three boys - 19, 17 and 14 - died after confrontations with the police. A year later, three officers were convicted for the murder of the 17-year-old, Kian Delos Santos. Police accused him of being a drug runner, but his family denied the charge.

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Kian Delos Santos' funeral sparked protests in Manila in 2017

Estimates of how many have died in Mr Duterte's war on drugs vary depending on who is counting. Official figures, as of November 2021, put the number at more than 6,200. But the country's Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said in 2018 that the toll could be as high as 27,000.

Mr Duterte, however, has stood by his brutal campaign: "I will never, never apologise for the deaths," he said in a weekly national address in January 2022.

The blunt 'strongman'

Mr Duterte made global headlines for other reasons too - shockingly blunt and offensive statements, and unpredictable policy shifts, all of which earned him the moniker "Donald Trump of the East".

He threatened to leave the UN, called the EU "hypocritical", and compared his war on drugs to the Holocaust. He referred to former US President Barack Obama as the "son of a whore", but his spokesman said he regretted it when Mr Obama cancelled a meeting. He swore at the Pope for causing traffic jams on his visits, and said God was "stupid" in a largely devout Catholic country.

When he hkissed a female worker on stage, it was described as the "disgusting theatrics of a misogynist president" by rights group Gabriela. Worse, he said he had sexually assaulted a maid when he was a teenager.

His foreign policy, vague during campaigning, continued to flip-flop. He hinted at taking a stronger stance against China over maritime disputes in the South China Sea. He famously said he would ride a jet ski to a disputed island claimed by both countries and stick a flag on it. But as president he pivoted away from the US - a former colonial ruler turned military and economic partner - and closer to China and Russia.

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Mr Duterte has retained much of the popularity that propelled him to power

The arduous process of making the Philippines more federal fell to the wayside. And he has been accused of targeting dissenters - two of his fiercest critics, senators Antonio Trillanes and Leila de Lima - have been jailed. Maria Ressa, a Nobel Prize-winning journalist whose news website Rappler has reported on the controversial war on drugs, has been accused in several court cases, from tax evasion to foreign ownership violations.

Covid proved to be Mr Duterte's biggest challenge, tanking the strong economy he had inherited as remittances from overseas and domestic consumption took a hit. Despite one of the world's strictest lockdowns, the country struggled to cope with rising Covid cases, hobbled by inequality and a fractured health system. It was one of the worst affected in Asia, with more than 3.6 million cases and 60,000 deaths.

But Mr Duterte remained hugely popular. His approval ratings, which mostly stayed above 50%, only took a hit in 2021 at the peak of Covid.

When he chose to step away from politics, he said it was because "the overwhelming sentiment... is that I am not qualified", possibly a reference to repeated opinion polls that put his daughter ahead of him.

But in yet another surprising turn, he didn't endorse his daughter Sara, or her presidential running mate, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.

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