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Politics

Davao mayor brings a zero-tolerance approach to the capital

DAVAO, Philippines   When Rodrigo Duterte took his oath as mayor of Davao for a seventh time, he repeated his warning to drug dealers and criminals: Stop or leave, otherwise, you will regret it. When he takes office as president at the end of June, his first order of business will be the same -- to rein in criminality and corruption.

Duterte built a political career spanning three decades as a no-nonsense crime-buster who transformed a dangerous "sleeping city" into a booming metropolis on the southern island of Mindanao. "I will just do what I did in Davao," Duterte, 71, told his supporters at his final campaign rally in Manila. The maverick mayor, who is poised to become the first Philippine president from Mindanao, believes curbing criminality will spur development and investment around the country.

When Duterte took over as mayor of Davao in 1988, the city was struggling to attract investment due to its lawless reputation. Urban guerrillas trained in the city during the height of martial law in the 1970s, when it was a focal point of the communist insurgency.

"The No. 1 problem really is image, so the No. 1 platform of government of Mayor Duterte was to reinstate peace and order," said Ivan Cortez, head of the city's investment promotion effort. "Without peace, you cannot start development. He really put a premium, in terms of budgeting, on peace and order to bring back the confidence of the people," Cortez said.

PEACE DIVIDEND   Duterte took office as mayor in 1988, serving three consecutive terms until 1998. As the city's chief executive, he cracked down on criminals, earning the moniker "the Punisher" for his unconventional approach to law and order. That encouraged people from other parts of Mindanao to move to Davao, spurring real estate development and tourism.

A year after assuming office, investment skyrocketed to 481 million pesos ($10.2 million at the current exchange rate). By the time he left office a decade later, that figure had reached 1.2 billion pesos.

Between stints as mayor, Duterte served as Davao's representative to Congress from 1998 to 2001 and as vice mayor from 2010 to 2013, installing a trusted lieutenant and her daughter to replace him.

Davao is one of the largest cities in the Philippines, with a land area of 2,444 square kilometers and a population of 1.6 million, but investors outside the region remain skeptical. Duterte's meteoric rise to presidential front-runner caught the world's attention for a different reason. His off-the-cuff remarks, including a joke in which he said he wanted to be the first to rape an Australian missionary who was later killed in a prison hostage-taking incident, have drawn widespread condemnation.

One local business leader downplays that criticism. "I believe that maybe the businessmen in Manila are just not used to the way our mayor talks, but I believe Mayor Duterte is running for president to improve the Philippines," said Bonifacio T. Tan, president of the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Duterte has promised to adopt the norms and etiquette required as president, saying his rough-hewn style was part of his campaign strategy. All eyes will now focus on the man the people of the Philippines have chosen to call the shots for the next six years.

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