DAVAO CITY— The Daniel R. Aguinaldo National High School hardly saw a crowd in its grounds like the one that descended outside Precinct 216 on the afternoon of May 9, election day.
It was like a mob waiting for a rock star. Many of them dressed in red and raising fists and cheers at broadcast cameras, people were jockeying alongside media and police for a view.
Precinct 216, a room labeled Aster (after the flower), was one of 14 clustered voting precincts in the school where 90,000 Davaoeños would vote.
As the noontime heat gave way to afternoon shade, fewer voters came to vote in the precinct. Still, the rush of people who wanted to see the precinct’s most famous voter did not end. The rest of the school gradually emptied, except for the area surrounding the bungalow classroom.
Some had arrived since morning, others after they cast their own votes. They were pointing cell phone cameras at the scene, on themselves, or on familiar faces from the national media, hoping their angle would capture the moment they saw him.
The people here were waiting for Rodrigo Duterte, the man they believed would be president. And as the minutes of that fateful day passed, it was not just in Davao.
Everyone across the nation awaited him.
* * *
This story could have been written 8 months ago.
In October 2015, the wait was outside the Commission on Elections in Manila, as filing of certificates of candidacy commenced for the country’s top elected national posts.
Presidential frontrunners like Jejomar Binay, Mar Roxas and Grace Poe were sure to arrive. But Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao and an increasingly attractive alternative bet, was the person many were waiting to see.
Would he or wouldn’t he file? It was a question asked not just that week but for the prior 5 months. After surging in ratings, Duterte floated in May the possibility of running and gave a string of conditions of what he wanted to achieve—including declaring a revolutionary government to weed out corrupt officials.
By August, the mayor said he wouldn’t run. But as clamor online grew and crowds gathered just to urge him, he asked for time to rethink.
The filing week gained suspense on its last day when rumors spread that Duterte was already on a plane from Davao to Manila to file his COC. A crowd of supporters carrying tarps, banners and even a cardboard stand-in anticipated his arrival. Some had their heads shaved on site, taking the cue from Duterte’s own children.
Many thought Duterte capable of pulling a surprise like that or something come-from-behind. When he ran for mayor in Davao, he would even let nuns file his COC for him.
The week ended with not a sighting. Instead, the mayor’s assistant went to the Davao City Comelec with Duterte’s COC for mayor, wearing a shirt printed with “No is no”.
But the noise at the now named #DuterteSerye did not end.
Supporters would not let go of the case. They believed the mayoral COC was faked. They also held out for an allowance in the election rules that could still let Duterte substitute for his party mate Martin Dino, who filed a COC for president.
The waiting ended in November. Dino withdrew for Duterte. And a roller coaster that featured a rookie in national politics began.
* * *
A roar arose at the high school back in Davao City each time a vehicle entered and punctured through the crowd, which thought Duterte was in it. It was nearly 3 p.m., the maximum time media were told the mayor would come vote. Still, no mayor was in sight.
Along with the police, uniformed student scouts also formed two chains to form a divide and keep the assembled in check. Reporters squeezed into the throng as their shooters stood on risers and surrounded the door of the voting precinct and its window grills.
This scene was unthinkable in 2013, the last time Duterte cast his vote in this school. With no giant crowd then, the few cameramen could enter the classroom and shoot Duterte up close while he voted.
Five minutes later, the erratic roars climaxed in shouts of “Duterte! Duterte!” when it became clear it was finally him. Fists and camera phones went up. Duterte, his own fist up, walked—not rode—in.
As he came closer, the divide closed in behind and in front of him. The mayor had to shout for the police to make sure women and children would not get hurt in the rush.
“I am not surprised,” he told reporters asking his reaction to the welcome. “I am a candidate for the presidency and almost all of them are my constituents. So it is very natural for them to gravitate towards me.”
Even with an election tight to call in its run-up, no one could deny the charisma Duterte commanded during the campaign.
Thousands waited for hours at rallies all over the country until he showed up late in the night. Once he took the stage, the crowd hung on to his every word, which consisted mostly of anecdotes to illustrate his platform of taking on the evils of crime, drugs and corruption.
One of those nocturnal monologues triggered the biggest storm Duterte faced before election day.
The global criticism that descended on him for his remarks on the rape and killing of an Australian missionary at a prison operation in 1989 was as intense as the sea of admirers Duterte had to pass through just to get to his voting precinct.
The discontent he had tapped into and the infamy he gained had elevated him from an outlier to a contender no longer ignored and on the verge of victory.
By 3 p.m., all of Duterte’s rival candidates had already voted except for him.
With no one else to notice, the country saw him shade his ballot on live TV through the lens of a camera peeking through the classroom grills.
* * *
The mint-green two-story house at the corner of a gateless subdivision in Davao’s Matina district has become a tourist attraction since May.
Everyday, different visitors take self-shot group photos or groufies in front of the house. Some local, some coming from as far as Manila or Cebu, they deliberately pass by for the photo-op, some getting off their cars.
This above-middle-class home with a garage that could hold at least 2 cars is where Duterte lives with his common-law wife Honeylet Avanceña and their daughter Kitty.
A police mobile vehicle stands nearby. Checkpoints cover the roads leading here, but it hardly feels guarded. The neighbors go about their business. They cast knowing smiles at the picture-taking stints and remember how low-key the residents of the now-famous residence were.
The visitors come hoping to get a shot, but more so to chance at a glimpse of the mayor. Many leave without seeing the real one and instead settle for his life-size stand-in in front of the house gates.
It’s not the only stand-in around. Cardboard cutouts of Duterte welcome guests to one hotel, guard over patrons at a halo-halo shop and raise a fist in the midst of night owls eating lugaw by the street.
Not in a long time has a politician’s image infected popular culture as its own brand.
Akin to Mao Zedong or Che Guevarra, Duterte’s face adorns shirts sold and worn here in Davao—some in motor biker designs.
An all-too-familiar sight during any campaign season. But the designs suggest they could be hip beyond the election.
* * *
Even the armchair Duterte voted on was soon turned into a relic of sorts. The school labeled it a “historical chair”, encased it in glass and displayed it outside the precinct.
In a country whose local movie industry has turned down action flicks for romantic comedies, Duterte was a real-life action star, a modern-day Fernando Poe Jr., whose own attempt at the presidency came close but fell short.
Not surprising for a man known for his firebrand talk, his love of motorcycles, for taking matters into his own hands, and whose campaign promise hinged on ridding the country of (later he said suppressing) crime and corruption.
Close to 40 percent—the surveys gauged— of voters would be voting not just for an idea or a platform, but for a man embodying it who they believe has the balls to do it.
Duterte had also turned into the bogeyman of social media. Memes with his face included texts such as “Uubusin ko ang mga adik sa *lugar* (I will finish off the addicts in *this place*)” as a half-joke and half-threat.
But the so-called “Punisher” himself said he cringes at the attention he was getting from his fans.
“I do not want glorification. I hate adulation. Naninindig ang balahibo ko. (It makes my hair stand on end),” he told newspaper editors.
To another group of reporters, he said: “I am not god or demigod. I just happened to be one of the Filipinos lucky enough in this world, I don’t know by design or destiny, to become president.“
Filipinos did not need to wait long to find out who their next president would be.
By evening of election day, Duterte ran ahead of his rivals in the continuous arrival of transmitted results. The trend kept on for the presidential race that the next day his spokesperson suggested calling Duterte the “presumptive president”.
But as quick as the results came, Duterte fled the public eye. After calling for “healing” among his rivals at a press conference that night, he met with his campaign team and supporters.
The next morning, Filipinos saw the presumptive president bawling at the graves of his parents as he confronted the reality of his victory. Then they heard nothing from him for a week.
* * *
When that week ended, visitors from all over flocked to a clubhouse towering over the rising condominiums of one of Davao’s growing real estate developments.
There were allies and prospective ones, diplomats and representatives of organizations, politicians and ordinary supporters, well-wishers and people looking for a job.
All of them were chancing on an audience with Duterte, who had just finally given a marathon press conference to a waiting nation.
For some, the private moment with the president-in-waiting at the Matina Enclaves came at once. Many had to stay there until they did get their audience next morning. Some even fainted in the heat.
It was not so much the wait but the hours that struck everyone.
After holding the presser past 2 p.m., Duterte stayed and held court through the night until he met every visitor and went home just before lunch the next day.
The incoming president was a night owl. It was something people in Davao were already accustomed to. Duterte after all was famous for driving a taxi around the city during the wee hours.
But it was a novelty and a jolt to the body clocks of people from the north, who would have to get used not just to his monologues but now to his waking habits.
The clubhouse on the Enclaves was thought to be the germ of what could be the Malacañang of the South—Duterte’s future headquarters since he declared he would be based in Davao for a chunk of his term.
It was owned by a Davao businessman who supported him. It was just around the corner from his house. Plus it looked good.
But before the end of the week, Duterte no longer showed up there, despite the constant police presence. He soon showed for appointments in various hotels also owned by supporters, but no longer at Matina. Soon, broadcast organizations stationed there were soon asked to leave.
In his 2-day-stay there though, Duterte had already gone to business. He named a handful of his picks for the Cabinet, made a number of policy statements and sealed alliances with other parties.
There was hardly need to wait for an action or pronouncement. It only made people wait for what he would do next.
* * *
As the electoral tribunal in Congress prepared to make Duterte’s victory official back in Manila, it became clear that the soon-to-be president-elect would not fly from Davao to show up for his proclamation.
The man who had never lost an election had not shown up for any of his previous proclamations and did not plan to start for what would be his likely final win.
Still, as with the election and the campaign before him, the country waited to see if he would pull off a surprise and come at the last minute.
Some said going on the podium with vice president-elect Leni Robredo would signal both respect for the electoral process and reconciliation between competing parties.
Instead, Duterte’s camp said he preferred to be working behind the scenes instead of attending a ceremony.
So when his name was uttered by the heads of the Senate and House of Representatives on May 31, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, 16th president of the Philippines, remained in Davao, nowhere to be found.
A series of waits preceded the victory of the self-styled “last card” of the Filipinos. His slogan, after all, was “change is coming.”
The wait for Digong has ended, but the wait for change has only begun.
And with the fate of a nation at stake, the wait this time could already be an impatient and highly expectant one.