MANILA -- Rodrigo Duterte, the frontrunner in the Philippine presidential election, talked with businessmen about killing criminals and tackling drug problems on Wednesday at an event intended for him to spell out his economic policies.
At the Presidential Dialogues, a series sponsored by the influential Makati Business Club (MBC) and the Management Association of the Philippines, Duterte, the mayor of Davao City in the country's south, talked at such length about his top priority -- law and order -- that the organizers had to trim questions and answers.
For Duterte, it was an opportunity to answer questions on his plans for the economy at a time when investors, especially foreigners, are becoming increasingly skittish about how the election campaign is shaping up.
Duterte, an advocate of federalism, has topped the polls all month, and results released this week show his lead widening. But foreign investors have been dumping stocks for the last three weeks, according to the Philippine Stock Exchange, and analysts attribute the capital flight to Duterte's rise.
"He is unknown to the business community and the market is concerned whether he will continue the reforms," said Lexter Azurin, head of research at Unicapital Securities.
Filipinos will elect the successor to President Benigno Aquino on May 9. Aquino's reforms brought about an economic boom, upgraded credit ratings, and renewed investor confidence, but under the constitution he is limited to a single six-year term as president.
Peter Perfecto, MBC's executive director earlier told the Nikkei Asian Review that there was a lot of interest in Duterte's address because his members wanted to clarify "some issues".
However, Duterte did not venture much beyond his core platform on Wednesday. "Peace and order is the foundation in which the progress can be made -- that is my article of faith," he told listeners. Some seemed uneasy -- even after Duterte tried to reassure them: "Relax. I am not the man I am portrayed to be by some," he said as he took the podium.
The tough-talking mayor then proceeded to pepper his speech with profanities as he outlined tactics against alleged criminals. ''I will use the military and the police to go out and arrest them, and if they offer violent resistance, I will simply say: 'Kill them all to end the problem.'"
The promise elicited some nervous chuckles in a hall packed with closed to 400 top executives, including Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, chairman of Ayala Corp., and Manuel Pangilinan, chairman of Metro Pacific Investments and Philippine Long Distance Telephone.
Presidential aspirants Grace Poe, an independent senator, and Mar Roxas, a former interior secretary, have already spoken in the talk series, which is principally intended as a forum for candidates to be quizzed on economic policies.
Duterte said he plans to increase spending on education, and expand the police and military through better remuneration. He also promised to support agriculture, small and medium enterprises, and to build mass transit systems.
"I will not hesitate to adopt the projects of Aquino and Arroyo if that will redound to the benefit of the people," he said, referring to the country's last two presidents. The statement ought to mollify those concerned about continuity, but the mayor has previously espoused populist measures, such as ending the kind of contract systems widely practiced by big Philippine companies. There is also concern in some quarters about Duterte's possible socialist leanings. An event that could have helped clarify controversial earlier comments instead left most questions unanswered.
"This is the bastion of capitalism," said MBC Chairman Ramon del Rosario, who was seeking clarifications from Duterte. "If we are going to shift to a socialist type of orientation, it is important for us to know because we have always believed that the private sector should really be the main driver of the economy."