DAGUPAN CITY, Philippines -- Tough-talking presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte's popularity has surged, just two weeks before the election on May 9, according to the latest survey conducted after his much-criticized joke about the rape of an Australian missionary.
The mayor of Davao City in southern Philippines, who is a candidate for the PDP-Laban party, saw his support among voters climb to 33% from 27% in a poll conducted April 18-20 by Social Weather Stations and BusinessWorld. The previous comparative survey was conducted early this month.
Duterte's lead widened over his closest opponent, Sen. Grace Poe, an independent candidate whose support improved to 24% from 23%. The rating of former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas of the ruling Liberal Party increased to 19% from 18%, while the score of Vice President Jejomar Binay of the United Nationalist Alliance dropped to 14% from 20%.
The survey, which included 1,800 voters and had a 2% margin of error, was conducted amid outrage over Duterte's joke about the rape of an Australian lay minister in Davao in 1989. "I was angry because she was raped; that's one thing," Duterte told supporters as he recalled a jail riot almost three decades ago. "But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first."
The survey does not yet take into account news about Duterte's comments on possibly severing ties with the U.S. and Australia -- two of the Philippines' major trading and security partners -- after their ambassadors chided him for the rape joke.
Duterte's centerpiece platform of wiping out crime, corruption and drug addiction has appealed to voters unsatisfied with outgoing President Benigno Aquino's good governance reforms. A 71-year-old former prosecutor, Duterte said he would kill criminals under his presidency, replicating his strategy in Davao, which he claimed worked despite being frowned upon by Human Rights Watch, an international organization.
In the last presidential debate, held in this northern Philippine city on Sunday, Duterte said even his own children would not be spared. "[I will] kill him," he said, when asked by the debate moderator what he would do if he were to learn that one of his children uses illegal drugs.
Duterte's "gutter language," as he describes it, has resonated well with voters, who say they prefer concrete or even drastic measures over politically correct but empty pledges. Even his Catholic supporters shrugged off his cursing of Pope Francis in November over traffic jams created by a January 2015 papal visit to Manila.
In a pronouncement that may appease voters disappointed by his recent foreign policy statements, Duterte toughened his tone Sunday regarding the nation's territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. Going against diplomatic norms, he said he would plant a Philippine flag on the disputed Scarborough Shoal, should China ignore a United Nations arbitration ruling siding with the Philippines.
"This is ours, and do what you want with me," he said. "I would stake that claim." If the Chinese Coast Guard shoots him, "it's up to you to weep," Duterte said, drawing cheers from the audience.
China took over the shoal in 2012, following a standoff. The Philippines brought the dispute to the U.N. in 2013, and a decision is expected this year.
Duterte, along with other presidential candidates, also reiterated his populist economic measures on employment and taxation. "The moment I assume the presidency, contractualization will stop," he said, referring to temporary labor contracts used by many Philippine companies. His policy would potentially clash with some big businesses.
He also sought to quell fears that his iron-fisted governance could lead to a dictatorship, which Filipinos fought against when they ousted late strongman Ferdinand Marcos in a popular uprising in 1986. He said only widespread rebellion and lawless violence could make him declare martial law, and that the current situation does not warrant it.
Under his presidency, Duterte said he would engage communist rebels in peace talks, give Marcos a hero's burial, and grant a request for house arrest from detained former President Gloria Arroyo -- all divisive issues in the country.
"It's time to heal," he said.