Rodrigo Duterte became the 16th president of the Philippines on Monday, succeeding current President Benigno Aquino, who will step down next month after six years in office. As a joint session of Congress on Monday officially declared him the winner of the May 9 election, news emerged that Philippine security forces killed 54 Islamist militants in a week-long air and ground offensive in the country's south.
The tough-talking Duterte, mayor of Davao City in the south, campaigned on the single issue of crushing crime and now faces a daunting task of fixing infrastructure, creating jobs and lifting more than a quarter of the 100 million population out of poverty.
"I hereby proclaim Rodrigo Roa Duterte and Maria Leonor Gerona Robredo as the duly elected president and vice president of the Republic of the Philippines," Senator Franklin Drilon and Congressman Feliciano Belmonte said in a joint session of Congress.
Robredo is an ally of Aquino's. She beat the son and namesake of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos to become vice president.
Duterte was in Davao on Monday and was declared winner in absentia. He won the ballots of nearly 40 percent of 44 million voters, who were lured by his success against crime in Davao, despite the questions his policies raised among human rights campaigners. The president-elect, who will take office on June 30, had previously said he would not be in Manila for today's declaration.
"I am not attending the proclamation. I've never attended any proclamation (in) all my life," Duterte said during a press conference, AFP reported. The politician has said that for the time being he will continue to reside in Davao and commute by plane each day to Manila, according to Bloomberg.
The 71-year-old politician has been criticized for allowing a spree of vigilante killings, and critics fear he could let them happen on a larger scale as president. He has denied ordering killings, but has not condemned them.
The former prosecutor has said he will continue Aquino's economic policies, which focused on infrastructure and fiscal efficiency, as a way to help push growth up to 7-8 percent. Growth has been averaged 6 percent a year under Aquino, but it has not translated into jobs and improvement in the lives of ordinary Filipinos.
The president also inherits a territorial dispute with China but he has indicated his willingness to repair strained ties by inviting Chinese investment and offering to set aside sovereignty issues in exploring resources in the South China Sea. He has said he will not abandon Philippine claims.
He has said he wanted a more even distribution of power and wealth and has called on Congress to revise a 1987 constitution to allow for a more federal system of government to accommodate Muslim rebels in the south.
But confrontation looks to be looming with the influential Roman Catholic church. Duterte has said he will defy the church and seek to impose a three-child policy and he has called Philippine bishops "sons of whores."
While the government focused on the new leader, in the country's south an army spokesman said security forces killed 54 Islamist militants linked to the Jemaah Islamiah group in a week-long air and ground offensive in the region. The fighting took place near the stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal with the government in 2014 to end 45 years of conflict that killed 120,000 people and stunted growth in the resource-rich areas.
Major Filemon Tan told Reuters that two soldiers were killed and nine wounded after air force planes dropped bombs on the militants' positions and ground troops pounded them with artillery fire, in the town of Butig in Lanao del Sur, from Tuesday.
"The artillery fire did more damage than the bombs," Tan added. "Our troops saw the enemies fall and, based on estimates, we killed 54. They beheaded two sawmill workers and toppled a power line in the area."
The fighting has displaced about 2,000 people from five villages in Butig, regional officials said.
About a decade ago, the MILF had expelled Jemaah Islamiah members from the area in preparation for peace talks brokered by Malaysia, and to avoid getting a "terrorist" tag from the US State Department. The military said Jemaah Islamiah-linked militants returned to the area when a law to granting autonomy to Muslim areas, under the government deal with the MILF, failed to pass in Congress.
As part of his campaign, Duterte has promised to pursue peace with Muslim rebels, proposing a new federal scheme to grant more political and economic powers to Muslim-dominated areas in the south.
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