Jess Saplala was sitting in a bar late one night in Davao City listening to a man singing a Frank Sinatra ballad when he noticed that the crooner was none other than the town’s mayor, Rodrigo Duterte.
After the performance, the mayor put on a baseball cap, pushed a .38 pistol into his belt and got into the driver’s seat of a taxi. “I have to make my rounds,” Saplala recalled him saying.
It was just another day at the office for an unconventional mayor who is now poised to become president of the Philippines.
With more than 92 percent of the votes counted on Tuesday, Duterte, 71, appeared to have an insurmountable lead in the presidential race. Unofficial returns showed him with nearly 39 percent of the vote, far ahead of his closest competitor in a system that requires only a plurality to win. Official results may not be known for days, if not weeks.
Early on Tuesday, Duterte visited his mother’s grave and cried, according to video posted on YouTube.
With an outrageous style that has been likened to Donald Trump’s, Duterte has tapped into widespread discontent over unemployment, crime and corruption. His strong personality — and resume as a prosecutor and mayor who stamped out crime in a violent area of the country — has endeared him to those who are tired of the more measured tones of President Benigno Aquino III.
But his success comes with a dark side: There were more than 1,000 extrajudicial killings in Davao City during his 20 years as mayor. On the campaign trail, Duterte boasted of personally killing criminals who he said were resisting arrest.
If elected, he said recently, he would aggressively pursue those who break the law, vowing to kill criminals himself and grant himself a presidential pardon.
He also wants to take a more conciliatory approach toward China over the contested South China Sea and has questioned the reliability of the Philippines’ alliance with the United States.
That approach would be a huge shift from the policies of Aquino and could set back efforts by Washington to marshal its allies to counter Chinese activity in the strategically important area. The Philippines recently agreed to host a more robust U.S. military presence after several decades of tense relations.
Duterte has gained international notoriety for his crude jokes about rape and insults of Pope Francis — virtually unheard of for an official in the Philippines, a predominantly Roman Catholic country. And some critics worry that his brand of populism is reminiscent of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
Yet people who know him say the caricature of a crass, womanizing vigilante is an oversimplification. They describe Duterte as a shrewd politician and technocratic mayor who supports services that help people in need.
At the Public Safety and Security Command Center that Duterte built in Davao City, Tyrone Gutierrez dismissed the suggestion that people are being killed by vigilantes. He supervises an operations center filled with screens showing live feeds from closed-circuit cameras that blanket the city.
Next door, Cynthia Perez, an emergency medical technician, showed off a fleet of new ambulances and fire trucks dispatched via a 911 call center. The emergency vehicles include a specially equipped children’s ambulance and a large vehicle that serves as a rolling hospital. The ambulances and medical services are provided free to patients.
The fleet might be unremarkable in many cities, but in the Philippines, where government services are often minimal, it is a point of pride.
“The mayor comes in at 11 or 12 at night, in the wee hours, to inspect our operations,” Perez said. “He’s very nice and approachable. He’s always joking around with us.”
Hermogenes Pobre, a former Justice Department assistant secretary who supervised Duterte when he served as a prosecutor in Davao City, also rejects the portrait of him as a wild-eyed vigilante. He recalls Duterte as hard-nosed and fair-minded.
“He was a good prosecutor,” Pobre said. “Any case that he handled he always decided strictly on the merits, strictly on the evidence.”
As mayor, though, Duterte started taking matters into his own hands, critics say.
According to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Duterte’s achievements in public service are overshadowed by more than 1,000 vigilante killings, including the deaths of street children, in Davao City.
“Duterte’s boastful brand of violent impunity should be a path to prosecution, not a platform for political office,” the group said in a report.
“Until the government adopts a zero tolerance attitude toward public officials who publicly endorse extrajudicial killings as an acceptable approach to governance, Duterte and others like him will pose a grave danger to the safety of the citizens they are elected to protect,” it said.
For many who have worked with Duterte, there is an acceptance of the deep contradictions between his political speech and many of his actions.
Luzviminda Ilagan, a congressional representative for Gabriela, one of the most active women’s rights groups in the country, would seem a natural enemy of a man who boasts of being a womanizer and has joked about wanting to rape a missionary. But Ilagan, who was once a city counselor in Davao City, has a more nuanced view of Duterte.
“His colorful language can be disconcerting,” she said. “But his actions can be contradictory to his statements. He might appear to be insensitive to women, but during his time as mayor he supported policies on behalf of women and programs for children.”
Under Duterte, Davao City developed a “gender and development code” that tried to equalize opportunities for women in government. The program has won multiple awards and has been cited by the national government as an example for other cities. Duterte also helped set up a crisis center for female victims of violence.
Duterte’s crude jokes and outlandish statements have a purpose, according to Benny Gopez, a businessman who has known Duterte for more than a decade. The jokes have helped define him as different from the other candidates and closer to the poor, who make up the majority of voters in the Philippines.
“His jokes are his connection to the common man,” Gopez said. “He knows what he is doing. He is a lawyer. He graduated from one of the top law schools. He passed the bar. He is a very intelligent fellow.”
Saplala, who became friends with Duterte after hearing him sing those Sinatra songs years ago, said many of the mayor’s most contentious statements came from an opinion of criminals he developed while working as a prosecutor in Davao, one of the most violent cities in the country at the time.
“He will never humiliate people,” Saplala said. “He is softhearted.”
He added: “But he changes when he starts talking about criminals. He gets very hard. He has a deep personal hatred for criminals.”
Despite strong economic growth and resurgent foreign investment, the Philippines still has high levels of poverty, crumbling infrastructure and a raging war in the southern part of the country against insurgents and kidnap-for-ransom gangs.
Ilagan said Duterte’s willingness to be frank and spontaneous made him the kind of leader who could bring an end to conflicts with rebel groups that have long battled the central government.
“He expresses what others are not able to say in polite society,” she said. “He is friendly and open to all sides, which is exciting for his presidency.”