Rodrigo Duterte: What You Need to Know About the Controversial Philippine President
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) reviews the troops with Army Chief Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda (L) during the 120th anniversary celebration of the Philippine Army at Fort Bonifacio on April 4, 2017 in Taguig city, east of Manila, Philippines. FileBullit Marquez / AP
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said former President Barack Obama can “go to hell,” called President Donald Trump a "bigot" and talked about personally executing people — yet he boasts a nearly 80 percent approval rating in his country, according to a recent poll.
Duterte — whose nicknames include "Duterte Harry" and “The Punisher," both references to ultra-violent fictional vigilantes — has been condemned by human rights organizations for his contentious war on drugs and crime, which has claimed the lives of thousands of people.
Yet the Asian leader remains incredibly popular among his supporters and is a key player in U.S. relations in the region.
Here’s what you need to know about Duterte and his rise to power.
Duterte is the son of a former governor of Davao Province in the southern Philippines and staked his own claim to the nation's political scene first as the strongman mayor of the city of Davao, beginning in 1988.
"He’s a provincial politician, not part of the sort of traditional Manila elite and he was mayor for longtime and basically ran his city like a personal sort of fiefdom," Marvin Ott, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center and visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, told NBC News.
During his 20 years as mayor, Duterte earned the nickname "the death squad mayor" because of the teams of hit men he allegedly sent to target suspected drug dealers — and addicts. Duterte has denied a role in the vigilante killings, but has also praised them.
He has also touted the fact that as mayor, he transformed Davao from the country's murder capital to one of its safest cities.
"Duterte, who was somewhat like a dictator in Davao, was very successful in the eyes of many people — not only in Davao but around the country," Richard Javad Heydarian, a Philippine author and political scientist, told NBC News.
Duterte's reputation for promoting violence in the name of public safety — even boasting about having "personally" killed suspected criminals — has earned him intense condemnation from human rights groups across the globe.
As recently as December, Duterte said he would go around "looking for a confrontation so I could kill" while he was mayor.
Phelim Kine, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told NBC News that HRW documented the "vicious death squad" during Duterte's tenure as mayor.
"It killed hundreds of people," Kine said. He added that although the group never found "any conclusive link" between Duterte and the death squad, they did find that members of his police force and city government "were very much involved" and "paying these killers."
As president, HRW and other groups say Duterte's "war on drugs" and crime has led to the deaths of an estimated 7,000 people.
"It's absolutely appalling that President Trump's first meaningful engagement with President Duterte did not include any meaningful reference or condemnation for the fact that Duterte has inflicted nothing less than an absolute human rights calamity on his country," Kine said.
Duterte rode an anti-establishment wave to the presidency in May 2016, despite his history of outlandish comments and his predecessor, former President Benigno Aquino, endorsing the Liberal Party's Manuel Roxas for his preferred successor.
"He was not somebody you would have expected to end up as president of the Philippines," Ott said.
Duterte made his signature issue what he described a rampant drug problem in the Philippines, Ott said, and was able to galvanize a strong base around that issue and eradicating crime in the Philippines.
"He’s a very distinctive personality — very flamboyant, very much like Donald Trump — lots of bravado, lots of bombast," he said "He cut quite a swaggering path through the presidential camp."
Heydarian noted that Duterte was able to successfully portray his more mainstream opponents as corrupt and ineffective.
"By some chance all of his opponents had skeletons in their closets, so when Duterte played this anti-establishment card, it really struck a chord," he said.
"He was the right guy at the right time," he added.
Duterte received more than 16.6 million votes in the election, 6.6 million more than his closest opponent, Roxas, according to the AP.
"He has not lost a single election in his life — how many people have done that?" Heydarian said.
In December, he threatened government officials with the prospect of being thrown out of a helicopter in mid-air if they were found to be corrupt — claiming he had done it before to a man suspected of rape and murder.
He caused an uproar during his campaign for joking that he would have liked to be the first to rape a woman who was gang-raped and killed while he was mayor during in a 1989 prison riot in Davao.
"I was angry because she was raped, that's one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste," Duterte said.