Do Filipinos view rape as a joking matter? Rodrigo Duterte, the Mayor of Davao who jokes about rape and killings, has widened his lead over rivals ahead of the May 9 presidential election, according to a nationwide poll released Tuesday. 

Weeks after Duterte’s controversial remarks earlier this month, he continues to draw mammoth crowds. His supporters aggressively go after his critics, spamming the online hotlines of women’s groups and swamping social media with nationalist rants. They cheered when their candidate dared the ambassadors of Australia and the US — close allies of the country — to severe ties if he gets elected. 

On April 13, Duterte cited the rape and killing of 36-year old Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill during a 1989 prison hostage standoff to illustrate the need for a tough leader. But the law-and-order message went off track when the mayor joked he should have 'gone first', after seeing the face of the victim, whom he described as having movie-star looks. 

Australia's Ambassador to the Philippines Amanda Gorely reacted on Twitter, saying 'rape and murder should never be joked about or trivialised' though without naming Duterte.

The US Ambassador Philip Goldberg then told CNN Philippines: 'I can only agree with my colleague from the Australian Embassy'.

Duterte apologised for his 'gutter language but  slammed the envoys. First he warned the Australian government to 'stay out'.  A few days later he said, 'It would do well with the American ambassador and the Australian ambassador to shut their mouths.' He also went on the attack against women’s groups, which his followers saw as a green light to unleash a swarm of abuse.

The Philippines is often touted as Asia’s most vibrant democracy in the western sense but there is no excuse for Duterte’s message. He was wrong on many levels. Foreigners are understandably puzzled and alarmed by what appears to be a display of attitudes and prejudices from the dark ages.

It would help if they could view these events through the eyes of Duterte's followers. He is a hero to people who have always found themselves outsiders in political and economic decision-making. Duterte is their proxy in a long-running, silent but seething war against the country’s elite and their backers.

Duterte’s supporters, which include some feminists and progressives, admit the Mayor erred, but add that they prefer his horrible jokes to horrible governance. They cite his record for helping poor people by providing services for health and education and in keeping residents of his city safe from crime. They also point to his city’s solid record in pushing women’s rights and welfare.

Ambassador Gorely would have been better focusing on Jacqueline Hamill and tapping into the public well of sympathy by citing the murdered woman's mission to help local communities. Instead, the ambassador’s impersonal, judgmental tone was construed as a personal attack on Duterte as the presidential election campaigns hit the homestretch.

Philippine law bans foreigners from directly of indirectly influencing the country’s elections and, when Duterte is criticised, many voters feel the country’s elite is ganging up on an outsider who likes verbally slapping down powerful institutions. He once cursed Pope Francis for causing monstrous traffic jams during his 2015 visit. Facing a tide of criticism, Duterte then exposed the sexual molestation he experience in the hands of a priest. The religious order that runs his former school has acknowledged there were complaints made about the priest, who died several years ago. 

Filipinos see Australia as a regional power, and the US as the world’s superpower. Both countries have heaped praise on President Beningo Aquino’s economic gains, which many citizens say they not benefited from.  Duterte’s supporters also  compare the reaction to Duterte's 'joke' with the silence or muted remarks that have greeted past accounts of grave human rights violations by government forces.

The US stance is also seen as hypocritical because it insists on special treatment for American soldiers charged with rape and human rights violations.  And Davao City remembers how a decade ago, the American government spirited out an American national suspected of orchestrating bomb blasts. Duterte, mayor then too, was vocal in his anger.

Duterte loves to flaunt his ties to the masses but the fact is, they believe him. There is no question he should never have made that rape joke. But the reaction from the Australian and US envoys has only cemented his followers’ belief they are backing the underdog in a David vs Goliath battle. 

Photo: Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images