Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in yesterday as president of the Philippines, with many hoping his maverick style will energise the country but others fearing he could undercut one of Asia’s liveliest democracies amid his threats to kill criminals en masse.
The 71-year-old former prosecutor and longtime mayor of southern Davao city won a resounding victory in May’s elections in his first foray into national politics. He has described himself as the country’s first leftist president and declared his foreign policy would not be dependent on the United States, a longtime treaty ally.
The frugal ceremony at Malacanan, the Spanish colonial era presidential palace, was a break from tradition sought by Duterte to press the need for austerity amid the country’s festering poverty. In the past, the oath-taking had mostly been held at a grandstand in a historic park by Manila Bay, followed by a grand reception.
Duterte, who began a six-year term, captured attention with promises to cleanse his poor Southeast Asian nation of criminals and government crooks within six months – an audacious pledge that was welcomed by many crime-weary Filipinos but alarmed human rights watchdogs and the dominant Roman Catholic Church.
Duterte’s inauguration address, before a crowd of more than 600 relatives, officials and diplomats, was markedly bereft of the profanities, sex jokes and curses that became a trademark of his campaign speeches. There were no menacing death threats against criminals, but he pressed the urgency of battling crime and graft, promised to stay within the bounds of the law and appealed to Congress and the Commission on Human Rights “to mind your work and I will mind mine”.
“There are those who do not approve of my methods of fighting criminality, the sale and use of illegal drugs and corruption. They say that my methods are unorthodox and verge on the illegal,” Duterte said.
He added: “The fight will be relentless and it will be sustained. As a lawyer and a former prosecutor, I know the limits of the power and authority of the president. I know what is legal and what is not. My adherence to the due process and the rule of law is uncompromising,” he said to a loud applause.
Shortly after Duterte’s election win, police launched an anti-drug crackdown under his name, leaving dozens of mostly poor drug-dealing suspects dead in gunfights or in mysterious circumstances.