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Voting has begun in the Philippines in a general election that opinion surveys suggest will see a tough-taking mayor, dubbed “the Punisher” for his lax attitude to extrajudicial killings, clinch the presidency.
Rodrigo Duterte, a 71-year-old ex-prosecutor, has run an obscenity-filled campaign in which he has boasted about Viagra-fuelled affairs and joked about raping a missionary.
Rights groups allege Duterte allowed death squads to kill more than 1,000 suspected criminals during his two decades as mayor of Davao city, an accusation he has at times denied and at other times bragged about.
The political establishment has warned that years of solid economic growth is threatened and foreign governments have looked on with trepidation as the country is a key regional player in the South China Sea dispute with Beijing.
The front-page headline of the Philippine Star newspaper on Monday summed up the anxiety: “It’s judgment day”.
In his last campaign speech on Saturday, Duterte, whose quick-fix plans to end crime and corruption have wooed voters, said there would be mass killings of criminals under his presidency.
“Forget the laws on human rights,” he said. “If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because … I’d kill you.”
Duterte’s opponents are most fearful of his threats to abolish congress or create a revolutionary government. The Philippines, the first democracy in south-east Asia, prides itself on ousting late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
In the five-way race with Duterte 10 poll points ahead, the outgoing president, Benigno Aquino, launched an 11th-hour attempt on Friday to unite the other candidates against him. Aquino had hoped they would rally their voters around his preferred successor, Manuel “Mar” Roxas, who is the grandson of a Filipino president.