What was once crowded with huge amount of trash and foul-smelling sidewalks, the Divisoria district in the Philippines’ capital city, Manila, was cleared of street vendors just two days after Mayor Francisco “Isko” Dimagoso Moreno (pictured above) got into office. Divisoria is a famous shopping destination for Filipinos, most especially during the holiday season. It is appreciated because of the wide range availability of cheap products and yet frowned upon because of pick-pockets and dirty streets. With this initiative by the mayor, the public was truly delighted. Most of the sentiments were those of amazement that a public official can make this positive change in less than 48 hours.
Mayor Isko, or what is called in the colloquial term yorme, is undeniably charismatic, a good public speaker, and has a relatable background—three of the qualities of a populist politician, if I must say. Is this enough to conclude that Mayor Isko is a populist? If not, are we looking at a future populist in the Philippines? The odds must be discussed.
Picture this: a person who has no political experience emerges to represent the marginalized public and runs for election whilst criticizing the establishment. This is populism. But this is not the case for Mayor Isko. Well, at least not entirely.
First, he is from the slums of Manila, a place called Tondo, the poorest of the poor. He was once a garbage boy and fed himself by eating leftovers from trash. Having experienced poverty, this makes Mayor Isko relatable to a lot of Filipinos and thus, their valid representation.
Second, Mayor Isko is charismatic, his name having been first known through show business as a television and film actor. It is safe to assume that this is also where he got his public speaking skills. To note, being in the public eye can be a way for an ordinary person to enter politics. This was true for some politicians here in the Philippines such as the late action star Fernando Poe Jr or “FPJ” who ran in the 2004 presidential elections, and Joseph Ejercito Estrada or “Erap”, who first entered politics through the 1969 mayoral elections in San Juan City. These two are both considered the people of the masses and greatly used their huge following in their respective political campaigns.
Third, during his mayoral campaign, Mayor Isko criticized the elites, saying remarks about how former Manila mayors Alfredo Lim and Erap Estrada (both of which are his former allies), made Manila worse, after being surpassed by cities like Makati and Bonifacio Global City in terms of development. It is in this narrative that Mayor Isko built his campaign in bringing back the old glory of what has been one of the poorest and dirtiest cities in the country.
Despite exhibiting these populist qualities, I argue that Mayor Isko is not a populist.
First, Mayor Isko’s mayoral win was not done overnight. In fact, he first started as a city councilor in Tondo in 1998 and vice-mayor in 2007. He ran for senatorial elections in 2016 and lost but has since regained this recently through a landslide victory against two political veterans Estrada and Lim. This means that he has the political experience and knows what he’s doing.
Second, he does not necessarily condemn the elites. Yes, he considers himself a representation of the people (What kind of politician will say otherwise?), but he is not subjective. According to Galston (2018) in his article “The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy”, populists are those who consider the elite and the people as homogenous. This is the belief that the elites are corrupt and the people virtuous. Furthermore, leading scholar of populism Muller says that populists are wrong to suggest that people can develop a similar value, a similar judgment, and a similar interest, because plurality characterizes them. Thus, Mayor Isko is not a populist in this matter because for him, if a person does wrong or commits a crime, there are consequences, regardless of status. Do not get confused, he wants the well-being of his constituents. But if a person does something that impedes and negatively affects the development of the whole city, he will take action. His policies are inclusive rather than divisive.
Mayor Isko has on-going projects in restoring Manila’s public spots like parks and shopping centers (as aforementioned in the beginning), and forgotten historical sites. He plans to make Manila a green city. He also donates his millions—which he gets as talent fees from brand endorsements—to the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) to cure cancer patients. These, among others, make Mayor Isko appealing and the people hopeful of what’s more to come.
Third, Mayor Isko is an advocate of open governance. Galston (2018) notes that populism enables potential autocratic leaders to dismantle the checkpoints, eventually threatening democracy. On the contrary, in his first Executive Order, Mayor Isko signed the Open Governance policy ordering all city government departments to publish and announce all city ordinances and issuances to their social media accounts within 24 hours upon approval. The mayor himself is fond of livestreaming. According to data, he has gone live for a total of 10,706 minutes in his first 100 days in office. He spends only half of his working days inside the office and the other half goes to the time he spends outside doing inspections, raids, and other activities as mayor. All these are broadcasted on his Facebook account. Mayor Isko does an average of two to three live videos a day, including weekends. To me, this is one of his ways to have transparency in his administration, thus countering the populist rhetoric of enabling autocracy.
However, these reasons do not imply that Mayor Isko will not become a populist in the future. There are lots of news that surface on the possibility of Mayor Isko running for the 2022 presidential elections, some even supportive of the idea. Last night, he appeared as a guest of a late night comedy talk show that is very popular in the Philippines. And one part was very noticeable. While entering the studio, Mayor Isko was welcomed by cheers, applause, and voices from the audience saying “Yorme! Yorme! Yorme!” which went on and on until he reached his seat at the center stage. With his immense popularity, his political strategy, and (if I may add) his regard to President Rodrigo Duterte as his inspiration, one can say that the path towards 2022 is not far. It can change everything—a change that I, amongst the people of the Philippines, can only hope is for the better.
Photo: ABS-CBN News