Philippines presidential candidate’s comments on Australian victim leave a bad taste.

Popular presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte has triggered widespread anger just three weeks before the Philippine elections, after a video of him joking about an Australian rape victim went viral.

The Youtube recording shows Duterte, infamous for his crass, crime-busting and macho persona, discussing the 1989 rape and murder of Australian missionary Jaqueline Hamill during a hostage-taking incident in Davao. Amid laughter from the crowd, Duterte says:

When the bodies were brought out, they were wrapped. I looked at her face, son of a bitch, she looks like a beautiful American actress. Son of a bitch, what a waste. What came to mind was, they raped her, they lined up. I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.

Despite fury over the remarks, Duterte initially refused to apologise. “If it brings me down, let it bring me down. If it brings me up to the presidency, then well and good. I will serve you but I will not as a matter of honour apologise for it.”

He also added, “It was not a joke. I said it as a narrative. I was not smiling.” However, the video clearly shows Duterte delivering the talk to at least two rounds of laughter from the audience.

However, he relented to public pressure and apologised today.

If you can stomach it, watch a video of the statement below.

More broadly is the question of what impact this will now have on his quest for the presidency.

The comments sparked a social media firestorm, with many expressing that they normalise sexual violence and disrespect towards women. Duterte supporters have responded with the slogan, “I’d rather choose a bad joke than a bad government”, pointing out Duterte’s pro-women advocacy programs and contrasting him against politically corrupt rival candidates.

Duterte’s behaviour has been heatedly denounced by key figures. Former colleague of Hamill, missionary Robin Merrill, wrote on a Facebook post shared 3,400 times: “Jacqueline was raped and had her throat slit while ministering in the jails in southern Philippines in a 1989 hostage taking. Duterte was recorded this week saying in his political rally that while he ordered the killing of the hostage takers while he was mayor, he wished he could have raped her first, since she was so beautiful… DON’T VOTE FOR PEOPLE who speak vile things against WOMEN!”

Australian Ambassador the Philippines Amanda Gorley tweetede in response to the incident, “Rape and murder should never be joked about or trivialised. Violence against women and girls is unacceptable anytime, anywhere”. Women’s group Gabriela demanded an apology, stating “Rape, or any form of sexual abuse is not a joke nor something to be trivialized in a joke, especially by a public official and most especially by those aspiring for the highest post in the land.”

Meanwhile, Duterte’s presidential rivals seized the opportunity to spear the front-runner. Current Vice President Jejomar Binay tweeted, “You are a crazy maniac who doesn’t respect women and doesn’t deserve to be president”. Miriam Santiago said Duterte had “crossed the line”. Mar Roxas stated that “…anyone who laughs at the ultimate assault on the dignity of women should not be allowed to wield power,” and Grace Poe commented “No one, whoever she is and whatever her looks may be, deserves to be raped and abused. Rape is a crime and no laughing matter.”

Duterte, who was leading in the most recent polls, has drawn support from voters for his blunt personality, his heavy-handed approach to crime and his humble class origins, which brand him apart from other politicians. At the same time, he has struggled with accusations of being a sexist womaniser and for disrespecting human rights.

Political analyst Professor Ramon Casiple warned the incident could cause Duterte to lose the vote of new supporters, with elections fast approaching, while others predict it will alienate young voters and the upper to middle class.

In the fierce, five-way election competition, where survey results fluctuate intensely and where personality trumps politics, the damage from this event could be seriously damning for Duterte.

UPDATE 20/04/2016, 2:43 PM:

There are new reports by CNN Philippines that Duterte has in fact not issued an apology for the rape joke incident. Duterte’s party, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan, released the apology statement on Tuesday and attributed it to Duterte. However, according to CNN, Duterte is now claiming he “knows nothing” of the apology, stating “Don’t insist on it, because I really won’t apologize.”

According to a report by PhilStar, Lito Banayo, a political adviser of Duterte “admitted that he drafted the apology but the mayor still had to approve it.”

Mish Khan is Associate Editor of New Mandala and a third-year Asian studies/law student at the Australian National University.