MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in Thursday as president of the Philippines, with many hoping his maverick style will energize the country but others fearing he could undercut one of Asia's liveliest democracies amid his threats to kill criminals en masse. The 71-year-old former prosecutor and longtime mayor of southern Davao city won a resounding victory in May's elections in his first foray into national politics. He has described himself as the country's first leftist president and said his foreign policy will not be dependent on the United States, a longtime ally. The frugal noontime ceremony at Malacanan, the Spanish colonial- era presidential palace by Manila's murky Pasig River, was a break from tradition sought by Duterte to press the need for austerity amid the country's grinding poverty. In the past, the oath-taking has mostly been held at a grandstand in a historic park by Manila Bay, followed by a grand reception.
Vice President Leni Robredo, a human rights lawyer who comes from a rival political party, was sworn in earlier in a separate ceremony in her office compound. Vice presidents are separately elected in the Philippines, and in a sign of Duterte's go-it-alone style, he has not met her since the May 9 vote. Duterte, who began a six-year term, captured attention with promises to cleanse his poor Southeast Asian nation of criminals and government crooks within six months — an audacious pledge that was welcomed by many crime-weary Filipinos but alarmed human rights watchdogs and the dominant Roman Catholic Church. Duterte's inauguration address, before a crowd of more than 600 relatives, officials and diplomats, was markedly bereft of the profanities, sex jokes and curses that were a trademark of his campaign speeches. There were no menacing death threats against criminals, but he pressed the urgency of battling crime and graft, promised to stay within the bounds of the law and appealed to Congress and the Commission on Human Rights "to mind your work and I will mind mine."
"There are those who do not approve of my methods of fighting criminality, the sale and use of illegal drugs and corruption. They say that my methods are unorthodox and verge on the illegal," Duterte said. He added: "The fight will be relentless and it will be sustained." "As a lawyer and a former prosecutor, I know the limits of the power and authority of the president. I know what is legal and what is not. My adherence to the due process and the rule of law is uncompromising," he said to loud applause. Appearing Thursday night at a Manila slum to thank his poor voters, Duterte was soon back to his old form, calling on parents to kill the children of other families if they're drug addicts "so it wouldn't be that painful." He thanked the crowd and gave a livelihood tip in line with his anti-crime campaign. "I'll tell you in the coming days, if you have a funeral parlor, you will earn a lot," he said, sparking laughter.
Shortly after Duterte's election victory, police launched an anti-drug crackdown under his name, leaving dozens of mostly poor drug-dealing suspects dead in gunfights or in mysterious circumstances. The killings provided a fearsome backdrop to Duterte's rise. After his resounding victory, he promised to mellow down on the vulgarity and promised Filipinos will witness a "metamorphosis" once he becomes president. Days before his swearing in, however, he was still warning "If you destroy my country, I will kill you," in a speech this week. In a country long ruled by wealthy political clans, Duterte rose from middle-class roots. His brash style has been likened to that of presumptive U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, although he detests the comparison and says the American billionaire is a bigot and he's not. Duterte is also the first president to come from the country's volatile south, scene of a decades-long separatist insurgency by minority Muslims. He has said he would direct security forces to refocus on fighting Muslim and Maoist insurgents — a reversal from his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who shifted the military to take charge of territorial defense while police handle the insurgencies.
Duterte's initial foreign policy pronouncements point to potential problems for Washington at a crucial time for the region. An arbitration tribunal in The Hague is scheduled to rule July 12 on a case in which the Philippine government questioned the validity of China's vast territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has refused to join the arbitration. Duterte has suggested he will keep the U.S. at arm's length and has shown readiness to mend frosty ties with China. Those potential shifts have raised the specter of another difficult phase in more than a century of a love-hate relationship between the Philippines and its former American colonizer. In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. looks forward to working closely with the Duterte administration. He said the Philippines is a U.S. ally and partner but has every right to pursue relations with China. "To the degree there's avenues for dialogue and discussion and constructive movement forward in the region, that's healthy and we would want to see that," Kirby told reporters. A senior Philippine diplomat said American and Australian officials are curious how the new president will handle relations with their governments, which have enjoyed strong ties with Aquino, who bolstered security relations as a way to counter China's assertiveness in disputed South China Sea territories.
The Chinese ambassador, on the other hand, has worked hard to repair damaged relations with Manila. He told Filipino diplomats Beijing would extend an invitation to the new president to visit China within the next six months, according to the Philippine diplomat who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for lack of authority to discuss such topic with reporters. "Definitely if the Philippines backs away somewhat from supporting the U.S. in the South China Sea, this would be a problem for the U.S.," said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. "China likes to present the U.S. as a destabilizing outsider in the South China Sea and in Asia more generally," he said. "The fewer Asian states that publicly counter this Chinese depiction, the more isolated the U.S."