Last September, I started a new job in Manila City. Despite having lived right next to it for all of my adult life, spending most of my waking hours in a new city – the country’s capital – has taken some getting used to. On top of the disorientation of adjusting to a new schedule, Manila itself has surprised me by looking different as of late. The gloom and grime that used to hang over Manila’s parks have now been replaced by warm orange lights, inviting and photogenic enough to place in people’s social media posts. The streets in arguably the biggest, most affordable shopping center in the Philippines, Divisoria, now seem wider that street vendors have been evicted. It seems as though the city once infamously branded by author Dan Brown “the gates of hell” is in the process of getting a makeover. And all of this change appears to be the work of a single man.
At the helm of the Manila City government is Francisco M. Domagoso, more popularly known to the Philippine public as Isko Moreno. In recent months, he has also adopted the moniker “Yorme,” a play on the word mayor and ostensibly part of his social media team’s efforts to make him appear more accessible to the electorate. Yorme was officially proclaimed as Mayor of Manila on May 14, 2019, having won almost 150,000 votes more than his closest contender during the elections, former president and then incumbent Manila City Mayor, Joseph “Erap” Estrada. Since his assumption into office, Yorme has driven much of his efforts towards beautifying the city and inviting more investors to Manila. He has also been on Facebook Live a lot. As of a Rappler report of his first 100 days of office, Yorme has gone live for a total of 10,706 minutes, sometimes going live up to three times a day even on weekends. All this of course, for the purpose of reaching out to people more easily through social media.
Despite his ascent to power, where Yorme stands in terms of political ideology remains nebulous. In an interview conducted right after the local elections, Isko Moreno describes his ideal political style as inspirational. He claims that the party he belongs to and of which he was a former party leader, Asenso Manileño, is different from other political parties in that it focuses on “the people,” specifically the people of Manila. Moreover, he claims that regardless of the form of government, i.e. socialist, communist, monarchy, it is a matter of “philosophy, vision, and principle” that allows leaders to improve the lives of their constituents by firstly attending to their basic needs. Thus, he claims to distinguish himself from other leaders in that, while other leaders may for example choose to focus on infrastructure, he chooses to focus on putting “capital” into people, i.e. investing in the education of his constituents rather than building more roads.
Some of Yorme’s actions, however, have been criticized as being anti-poor. One of Moreno’s earliest and most drastic actions upon occupying his post in July, for example, had been to clear out the streets of the Divisoria shopping district from vendors selling their wares in street stalls. As no clear effort had been made to relocate the displaced vendors – until they had been allowed back to the area in November – some members of the public were quick to decry Moreno’s policy as being anti-poor, a tag acutely antithetical to his claim of running under a platform of being for “the people”.
Moreover, another of Moreno’s more polarizing policies has been over graffiti made by local activists from protest art group Panday Sining on Manila public property. Four members of the group were detained by the police after having been caught marking protest graffiti in high traffic areas, eventually leading to the group Panday Sining being declared as persona non grata in Manila. Regardless of which side one stands on with regard to the justified protest vs illegal vandalism debate, it is important to note the swiftness with which Moreno quashed the ability of an entire organization to express their grievances within his jurisdiction.
Clearly, Yorme is playing by the rules of the populist playbook. This style of leadership is not new to the people of Manila or even to the people of the Philippines. The current President, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, has become one of the most visible populists in the world since his election in 2016. Manila itself has nursed a long list of mayors who have claimed to run mainly under politics “for the people,” with each of them establishing an unforgettable brand. Lito Atienza was known for his floral shirts and for hosting the television Maynila since 1998, the same year he was first elected mayor. Alfredo Lim, a former policeman, focused on fighting crime in tough-guy fashion even before Duterte made it trendy. Erap Estrada, perhaps the most charismatic of them all, was a former movie star. All of them claimed to be “for the people.”
The Philippine capital, much like the Philippines itself, has always had a penchant for flashy politicians who claim to be makamasa or “for the masses”. It may even be argued that performative populism has long been the chosen strategy for politicians in Manila because it has always guaranteed them votes. Populism by definition may be broad, but Yorme, at the very least, checks with most of the characteristics of a politician who engages in performative populism, in that he makes a strong appeal to “the people” and provides simple solutions to complex problems. Manila looking worse for wear? Use expensive lighting. Graffiti everywhere? Banish their originators from the city.
Arguably the one aspect in which Moreno differs from that of a traditional populist is his language. Moreno, despite his strongman rhetoric, is not known for swearing, something that differentiates him from his major contemporaries in Philippine politics, who appear to be riding the wave of communicating profanely. For his gallant manner and artistahin good looks, Moreno has ushered in the phenomenon Iskomania, an almost fanatical following that has reached celebrity status. This wave, like others in the Philippines driven by populist style and rhetoric, reminds us that here, identity politics remains king. One’s political ideology barely matters. If one has the right image, one can win.
At the same time, it is reductive to argue that Isko Moreno does not have what it takes to lead. As a former councilor and vice mayor, Yorme has certainly put in the hours for Manila City. Moreover, he has somehow found a way to make himself as visible as national politicians, despite serving on the local level. Questions, however, remain. Will he be able to distinguish himself with policy proposals and a political ideology that are aligned with people’s interests? Will he continue to run on a platform as vague as “for the people… immaterial of form of government7”? And will his performance be enough for people to keep voting for him, maybe even voting him to the national level should he decide to seek higher office? Isko Moreno’s term has only begun, and the coming years will weigh him.