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Voters In The Philippines Are Choosing Next President

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The vote for a new president in the Philippines has produced its own controversial and popular candidate - a tough-guy mayor, nicknamed The Punisher, who's vowed a bloody war on crime and corruption if he is elected. The last poll going into the election showed Rodrigo Duterte. His sometimes outrageous statements have prompted critics, including the outgoing president, to warn of a return to dictatorship.

Reporter Michael Sullivan joins us now from the capital, Manila. The voting is going on now. So, just first off, is this a big turnout for this presidential election?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Well, Renee, turnout was very high at the polling station I was at, here in Malate, near Manila Bay. By 7 o'clock this morning, there were already really long lines of people waiting in the already stifling heat. And the majority said they were going for The Punisher, Rodrigo Duterte.

SHERRY OHNBULAN: There are a lot of crimes and bad things happening in this country today. And I think that he is the only one who can deliver a very, very, very, very big change.

SULLIVAN: So that was Sherry Ohnbulan (ph). She is 22 years old, a medical student. Here is another Duterte voter, a 30-year-old IT manager named Jefferson Lim. And he's a fan because of the mayor's record in Davao and the crackdown on crime he launched there as mayor, a crackdown that human rights activists say resulted in the deaths of hundreds in extrajudicial killings. But Lim, the IT guy, says he's not really bothered by that.

JEFFERSON LIM: He can instill discipline for the people. Here - I live in Manila - I think I have been pickpocketed for quite a number of times now. I think criminals aren't afraid of the consequences they do.

SULLIVAN: You think he'll make them afraid?

LIM: Yeah, yeah.

SULLIVAN: Now, a much smaller number of voters in this polling place said Duterte, he's just over the top. And some of them said they were voting for one of the other two candidates running 10 points behind him.

MONTAGNE: All right, so there are other candidates. Why are so many people drawn to this slightly outrageous guy?

SULLIVAN: Because, Renee, at a macro level, the Philippine's economy is definitely growing, about 6 percent a year. But the majority here say it's not working for them. They're not feeling it. It's not trickling down. It's sticking in the palms of the 1 percent.

And the people here want a president who isn't one of the usual suspects, one not beholden to the oligarchs that hold so much power here. On a daily basis here, especially in Manila, the traffic is just horrendous. The Internet is incredibly slow. People don't have much money. And then there's the crime and the corruption we just heard about. So Duterte, he's their guy.

MONTAGNE: All right, so is he going to win?

SULLIVAN: Well, he's got that double-digit lead, but his opponents have very sophisticated political machines and know how to get out the vote. And there's more than 20 percent of the population that were undecided just before election day. So there could be a late surge for someone else. But with that big lead and the rest of the vote splintered among the remaining four candidates, he's got a good shot.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, finally, Michael, the U.S. has had a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. And the Philippines has been an ally of the U.S. in that. Would that be affected if Duterte is elected?

SULLIVAN: It could be, Renee, but it's also too early to tell because he's made some noises about making nice with China over contested territory in the South China Sea. But then he has also said that he'll jet ski to one of those disputed bits of rock and coral and plant the Philippine flag there in defiance of Beijing. So we'll have to wait to see on that and on relations with the U.S, which have been growing closer lately because of the friction in the South China Sea.

MONTAGNE: Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And that's reporter Michael Sullivan joining us from the capital of the Philippines where people have been voting today for a new president. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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