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The incoming president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has taken office vowing to launch a violent crack down on crimes and criminals. But critics fear his support for vigilantism will worsen the cycle of violence.
Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as the country's 16th president on Thursday, and minutes later he told the nation that he would wage a "relentless" and "sustained" battle against crime and warned officials that he would not tolerate corruption.
Duterte has capitalized on his image as a man-of-the-people with no tolerance for the nation's political and business elite.
"When I become president, by the grace of God, I serve the people, not you," he told reporters in the final stages of the election campaign, referring to the elite. "My problem is the people at the bottom of society... my problem is how to place food on the table."
The 71-year-old politician rose to the nation's top job after spending most of the past two decades as mayor of Davao, the largest city on the island of Mindanao, earning a reputation as a ruthless leader willing to forsake human rights to enforce law and order.
A former prosecutor, Duterte is accused of links to death squads that rights groups said killed more than 1,000 people in Davao - accusations he has variously accepted and denied.
During his electoral campaign, Duterte has vowed to wipe out drug crime within six months but, according to Chito Gascon, head of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the aggressive rhetoric behind his promises has already instilled a sense of impunity among the police.
Since the May 9 election, an average of one person has been shot dead by police or anonymous vigilantes every day. That's an escalation from the first four months of the year when the rate was about two a week.
"Basically, you have Mr. Duterte saying: 'It's okay, I've got your back'," said Gascon.
Rodrigo Duterte won last month's elections in a landslide after a campaign in which he promised that thousands of criminals would die and that fish in Manila Bay would grow fat on their dumped bodies.
Elected on populist campaign of vigilantism
Duterte's man-of-the-people image is burnished by his disdain for formal clothes, his preference for eating food with his hands and living in a simple home in Davao. But in many ways he's a traditional politician.
He is related to powerful clans from the central Philippines and his father served three years as a cabinet secretary in Ferdinand Marcos' 1960s government before the nation was plunged into dictatorship in 1972.
Marcos and his wife, Imelda, were accused of overseeing widespread human rights abuses and stealing $10 billion from state coffers during their rule, which ended with a famous "People Power" uprising in 1986. In recent weeks Duterte has said he'll allow Marcos to be buried in Manila's hero's cemetery.
Duterte replaces Benigno Aquino, who expanded a conditional cash-transfer program for the nation's 20 million impoverished - roughly a fifth of the population. It ensured children stayed in school and received basic medical care.
But his critics said economic growth under Aquino did nothing to ease deep poverty and Duterte rode a wave of popular wave of disgust in the country's ruling elite, among whom corruption is rampant.
Observers have said that many in the electorate were apparently willing to overlook his authoritarian streak in the hopes he'll deliver relative peace and economic prosperity.
jar/sms (AFP, Reuters)