MANILA, Philippines – A tough-talking Philippine mayor has widened his lead in a poll ahead of May 9 presidential elections, but analysts said Sunday his chances will likely be hurt by a storm of criticism over a rape joke and offensive remarks against major Western allies.
Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of southern Davao city led with 34 percent of 4,000 respondents in the Pulse Asia survey released Sunday, while Sen. Grace Poe followed with 22 percent in the poll commissioned by the ABS-CBN TV network.
Vice President Jejomar Binay was third at 19 percent, while former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas got 18 percent among the top contenders in the survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percent, according to ABS-CBN.
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Pulse Asia President Ronald Holmes said the survey was concluded before Duterte’s remarks last week in which he joked he wanted to be the first to rape a beautiful Australian missionary who was killed and sexually assaulted by inmates during a 1989 hostage-taking crisis in a Davao prison.
Australian Ambassador Amanda Gorely tweeted that “rape and murder should never be joked about or trivialized” and “violence against women and girls is unacceptable anytime, anywhere,” remarks which were backed up by her American counterpart in Manila.
Duterte later angrily asked the two ambassadors to shut up in a campaign rally. When a reporter mentioned about the Philippines’ diplomatic ties with the U.S. and Australia possibly being cut over the issue, Duterte quipped: “If I become president, go ahead and sever it.”
After rival candidates and social media commentators criticized Duterte, the 71-year-old mayor clarified that his comments were in response to a hypothetical question from the media about the possibility of the two Western allies initiating an act to cut their ties with Manila.
President Benigno Aquino III, who has endorsed Roxas’s candidacy, also hit Duterte, saying the U.S. is one of the country’s largest trading partners. Australia has been helping the government forge a peace deal with Muslim guerrillas in the country’s south, where Duterte lives.
It remains to be seen how much those criticisms would weigh down on Duterte’s survey ratings, Holmes said, adding that the next survey results would be released this week.
When Duterte cursed Pope Francis in December after getting trapped for hours in a huge traffic jam caused by the pontiff’s visit to Manila in January last year, he apologized and took steps to ease criticisms among dominant Catholic Filipinos, but still saw a marginal decline in his survey rating, Holmes said.
Some analysts, however, said the impact on his candidacy could be serious.
Political analyst Ramon Casiple said Duterte stands to lose many undecided voters, especially women and the marginalized who were leaning to support him if they start questioning his fitness to lead an entire nation and if they start to fear that he may bring the Philippines into a conflict with other nations.
“This may strike at the heart of his attraction – his portrayal of himself as champion of the masses,” Casiple said.
Rival candidates, Casiple said, would likely try to raise Duterte’s controversial remarks during a final debate to be televised live nationwide later Sunday.
Known for his expletives-laden speeches, Duterte built a political name with his iron-fist approach to fighting crime in Davao, where he has served as mayor for 22 years.
His bold pledge to eradicate crime, especially drug trafficking and kidnappings, as well as corruption in three to six months has resonated with the public, but also sparked alarm and doubts.