(CNSNews.com) – Tens of millions of voters were casting ballots across the Philippines on Monday, in an election that looks likely to hand the presidency of the Southeast Asian U.S. ally to an outspoken mayor who has courted controversy with pugnacious rhetoric and no-holds-barred tactics in tackling violent crime.
Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte had led comfortably in opinion polls among the five candidates running to replace President Benigno Aquino, whose single six-year term is coming to an end.
Alarmed that he may be succeeded by a man who has threatened to fire the Senate and institute one-person rule if lawmakers block his anti-crime initiatives, Aquino urged three of the other four candidates to drop out in favor of the fourth.
His eleventh hour appeal for them to throw their support behind Mar Roxas, who has held several cabinet posts including that of interior minister, fell on deaf ears, however.
For his part, Duterte dismissed the outgoing president in characteristically vulgar language, calling him the “son of a whore.”
Nicknamed “The Punisher,” the 71-year-old former lawyer has been accused of links to a so-called “death squad” of vigilantes responsible for summary executions of suspected criminals in the city in southern Mindanao province. More than 1,000 people have been killed in murky circumstances since the late 1990s, and Human Rights Watch accuses the mayor of responsibility.
A year ago, Duterte vowed that if he became president in the 2016 election he would execute 100,000 criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay.
Statements like that drew strong accusations from critics at home and abroad, but also enthusiastic support from many in a country where corruption and crime are pressing campaign issues.
On Saturday night, Duterte told supporters at a mass rally in Manila that if he became president he would fight crime the same way as he has done as Davao mayor, warning drug-pushers and other criminals that he would kill them.
During the campaign Duterte sparked a storm with provocative comments about an Australian missionary who was held hostage and raped during a prison riot in Davao 27 years ago. The woman was “so beautiful,” he told a campaign event, that “I thought, the mayor should have been first.”
When a woman’s group filed a formal complaint, he told it to “go to hell.”
The U.S. and Australian envoys in Manila also voiced their distaste about the comments.
“Any statements by anyone, anywhere that either degrade women or trivialize issues so serious as rape or murder, are not ones that we condone,” U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg told CNN Philippines at the time.
The predominantly Catholic Philippines is a key U.S. ally in South-East Asia which in 2003 was awarded the same “major non-NATO ally” status as enjoyed by such close U.S. partners as Australia and Japan.
Along with several other countries including Vietnam, the archipelago is embroiled in heated territorial disputes with China over resource-rich areas of the South China Sea, an area that includes some of the world’s most crucial shipping trade corridors.
The U.S. has drawn strong criticism from Beijing for supporting its partners in the dispute – Washington’s official policy is that it does not take sides, but wants to ensure freedom of navigation and the rule of law in international waters.
Last month Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced during a visit to Manila that U.S. and Philippines naval forces would carry out more joint air and sea patrols in the South China Sea, prompting the Chinese foreign ministry to suggest the U.S. was “sabotaging regional peace and stability.”
More than 54 million people are registered to vote on Monday, when they will also elect national, provincial and local lawmakers and representatives. Turnout in the Philippines in recent elections has been high – 74.3 percent in the 2010 election that brought Aquino to power.
The next president is due to take office on June 30.