Rape comment Philippine president candidate 'is frontrunner'

A Philippine presidential candidate whose comments about rape provoked an international outcry has emerged as the "clear frontrunner" in the latest opinion survey, pollsters said Monday. Rodrigo Duterte sparked revulsion among women's groups, diplomats and the Catholic church when he told an audience that as the local mayor, he should have been at the front of the queue when an Australian missionary was attacked in a 1989 jail riot. But far from damaging his prospects in next month's presidential vote, the remarks appear to have had little effect, with the latest opinion poll giving him a nine-point lead over his nearest rival. Analysts say Duterte's profanity-laced campaign resonates in a chaotic, high-crime society with limited opportunities for a vast underclass working for a tiny elite. Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of the southern city of Davao, is the "clear frontrunner", research institute Social Weather Stations (SWS) said Monday of its poll. "Mayor Duterte has been steadily gaining ground. It's a clear lead. The joke could have affected him in such a way that his score could have even been higher had it not been for that news," SWS spokesman Leo Laroza told AFP. More than 50 million people in the mainly Catholic nation are qualified to vote on May 9, when Duterte will face off against four other candidates, including the preferred successor of popular outgoing president Benigno Aquino. Duterte is hailed locally as "Dirty Harry" and has boasted of operating death squads in Davao targeting criminals -- a policy he has promised to introduce nationwide if elected. In a debate Sunday, he even vowed to kill his own children if they ever took drugs. -- 'Strongman leadership' -- The survey of 1,800 people, which was carried out in the days after Duterte's rape comments gained widespread publicity, showed his support rate had risen to 33 percent in April, up from 27 percent in March. Francisco Magno, president of the Philippine Political Science Association, said the latest poll showed a substantial voting bloc was attracted to "strongman leadership". It showed marked sympathy for his "one-issue campaign effort" against crime and illegal drugs, he added. It also indicated that issues like women's rights and human rights in general were secondary for many. "There is much to be desired about the quality of political education" in the country, Magno told AFP. Duterte also benefited from having three major rivals splitting the vote, said Magno, noting that if the three coalesced behind one candidate they might have a chance of stopping him. Current President Aquino, the son of a former president, is constitutionally limited to a single six-year term. His preferred successor Mar Roxas -- the grandson of a former president -- trails badly in surveys. Despite dramatic economic growth under Aquino, analysts say Duterte's appeal stems from popular disenchantment with the political elite in a nation where one in four still lives in poverty. Women's rights advocate Ana Maria Nemenzo said Duterte's ranking in the latest survey reflected poorly on Philippine culture. "The culture of rape is very much prevalent, it is deep-seated in our machismo system. You can see the men seem to lap up this kind of talk," she told AFP. Nemenzo, head of WomanHealth Philippines, said that despite two female presidents in the past, the reaction to Duterte's "debasing" remarks showed the country still had far to go. "If Duterte wins, it's going to be a tragedy, not only for the women's movement, but for our country," she added.