MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A tough-talking Philippine mayor has widened his lead in a poll ahead of May 9 presidential elections, but analysts said Sunday that 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. Sen. Grace Poe followed with 22 percent in the poll, which was 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.
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 sexually assaulted and killed 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. When asked about the possibility of the U.S. and Australia possibly cutting ties with the Philippines over the issue, Duterte quipped: "If I become president, go ahead and sever it."
After he came under fire, including from President Benigno Aquino III, for comments that may undermine ties with the U.S., a huge trading partner, and Australia, which has helped the government forge peace with Muslim rebels, Duterte clarified that his remarks were in response to a hypothetical media question about the possibility of the two allies initiating moves to cut ties with Manila.
Julio Teehankee of De La Salle University said Duterte's brash pronouncements may have already caught the attention of the U.S. and Australian governments, which are key security allies of Manila.
"I'm not sure if the mayor understands the potential damage that his statement on foreign policy will inflict on the Filipino people, but definitely this will be alarming for the United states and Australia," Teehankee said.
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.
Asked about his rape joke and flirty gestures in a nationally televised debate later Sunday, the 71-year-old mayor said, "That is what I am." His remarks about the raped Australian were uttered without malice, he said, noting that all 16 of her attackers had been killed.
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.