Duterte: From 'Punisher' to Philippine president?

(CNN) -

He's caused outrage with inflammatory comments on the rape and murder of an Australian missionary, but Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte has been fighting controversy most of his long political life.

Well-known at home for his provocative quotes and colorful past as mayor of a local town, Duterte is an old hand at courting the local media, and voters, with his antics.

Courting controversy

Duterte refused to apologize for his most recent offensive comments on the gang rape, and has disowned an apology that was issued on his behalf by his political party.

But he did send a letter of apology to the pope last year, after cursing the pontiff for the traffic he caused during a January visit to the country.

"We were affected by the traffic. It took us five hours. I asked why, they said it was closed. I asked who is coming. They answered, the pope. I wanted to call him, "Pope, (swear words), go home. Do not visit us again," he said.

In a response to the apology that was leaked to the press, the pope acknowledged his apology and offered Duterte his prayers.

'The Punisher'

As mayor of Davao City, a small metropolis of 1.5 million people on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Duterte made his name nationally for his no-nonsense approach to crime.

Duterte claims to have drastically reduced Davao's previously high rates of violent crime under his leadership.

But along with this reputation came allegations that he was connected to extrajudicial killings by a well coordinated group of vigilantes, earning him the moniker "The Punisher" by Time Magazine in 2002.

Duterte himself confirmed the claims during a regular live weekly TV show broadcast locally in the Philippines last year.

"Me? They are saying that I'm part of a death squad? True, that's true," he said in a mix of English and Visayan, a language spoken in southern Philippines, before threatening to kill thousands more criminals if he was elected president of the Philippines.

He later retracted that statement in a press conference, telling reporters there were "no Davao Death Squads," but the allegations remain and numerous local and international human rights groups have regularly criticized his record.

Last year the New York-based Human Rights Watch estimated that more than 1,000 people had died in Davao since the 1990s under Duterte's leadership and urged the Philippines government to investigate the killings.

When it comes to women, it's complicated

Duterte has also come under fire for his flirty behavior on the campaign trail, as well as for the large number of women in his life.

He has three children from his first marriage to Elizabeth Zimmerman, a partnership that has since been annulled. He currently has a common-law wife, Cielito Avanceno, who is better known as Honeylet, and has publicly admitted to having as many as three girlfriends.

Duterte's relationships and his public behavior -- he has faced allegations of sexual harassment after photos of him kissing women seated on his lap during the election campaign started circulating locally -- have led many to question his attitude to women.

Responding to a question from an audience member during a recent CNN Philippines Town Hall, Duterte said that he does not objectify women.

"Not ever. I have a mother, I have a daughter, I have a wife. Why would I do it? It's not an object [sic] simply because I am separated from my wife," he said.

President in waiting?

Despite his colorful background, Duterte remains extremely popular with the Philippine public who admire his apparent no-nonsense attitude and his simple style.

With just one month left before the presidential election on May 9, the most recent polls show that Duterte has a healthy lead over the other four candidates.

The poll was conducted before his most recent controversy, so it remains to be seen if the international criticism will dent his home support or further strengthen his run to become the next Philippines president.

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