September 28, 2022

Isko Moreno: The Filipino Jokowi?

5 min read

HE was born in Manila’s Tondo, one of the poorest and most densely-populated neighbourhoods in the world. Much of his youth was spent scavenging for pagpag, literally, re-fried leftovers from the garbage.

Now 45 years old, Francisco Moreno Domagoso, or, as he’s known to the Philippine public, “Isko Moreno”, is the mayor of Manila.

The leap from street urchin to mayor seems like the stuff from movies, and indeed, that’s where he got his start. This being the Philippines as well, politics was never far away.

Isko was discovered in Tondo by a talent scout at a wake. A series of breakout TV and film roles followed, and the rest is history.

But he hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from and the lessons from his upbringing:

“I grew up with criminals, with drug addicts. I grew up on the street. I was given a hard life since the day I was born to understand our community today…God has so many ways of teaching you. You’ve seen where I live, and it was hell back then…I didn’t know what my purpose was and I thought, ‘Oh God, when will this end?’ But later only to find out, that I would be mayor. And now I understand the reason.”

And Tondo still remembers – and loves him.

Fifty-year-old port worker Gibo, who says he grew up with Isko in Tondo’s Moriones section, jokes that he was there when the latter got his break. As Gibo told Team Ceritalah, while things haven’t immediately improved in Moriones, the Yorme (street slang for mayor) just needs to continue what he’s doing and avoid being ningas kugon – starting strong but disappointing later.

Isko’s path to power has been deliberate and determined. He created a splash by becoming Manila’s youngest-ever councillor at 23 (1998-2007) and vice-mayor at 32 (2007-2016), serving under both Alfredo Lim and former president-turned-mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada.

Despite an unsuccessful 2016 Senate bid and minor positions in President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, he ultimately returned to defeat Erap earlier this year. It was a landslide victory, earning him the moniker “giant slayer”.

Indeed, having just completed his first hundred days in office, Isko has emerged as a minor sensation in Philippine politics. His social media presence, – especially on Facebook, the republic’s preferred network – has been irrepressible. He’s accumulated 1.8 million (and counting) likes as well as broadcast over 263 Facebook Live events in that period: ranging from official meetings, to surprise inspections and even his dental appointments.

Isko sees his online presence as an essential part of governance: “I go live to show the enforcement units that the government should still run while the people are asleep. It makes them feel that there is somebody there keeping the city safe…It gives lazy officials sleepless nights…I will not stop.”

And it’s not like Isko is spending all his time flooding people’s digital feeds. He’s also committed to reviving the 1.78-million strong Manila.

There’s a lot to do. Many parts of the city are now notorious for their decay.

Binondo and Quiapo, formerly the heart of Manila’s Chinatown and the centre of the archipelago’s business life, are now traffic-clogged and boarded up. Two pre-war, well-to-do neighbourhoods, Ermita and Malate, are now scruffy and rundown, the haunt of prostitution and the grubbier ends of tourism.

Isko – who is married with five children to businesswoman Diana Lynn Ditan – has hit the ground running. As part of efforts to resolve Manila’s perennial traffic logjam, he’s evicted illegal street vendors, especially in the Divisoria shopping district, some of whom were relocated.

He’s banned the sale of alcohol within 200-metres of schools and universities and strictly enforced a 10pm-4am curfew for minors. He’s also pledged to address child malnutrition by reviving the Nutribun supplementary feeding program in public elementary schools.

“We are trying to provide education, open green space and vertical housing development. We’re also trying to address traffic, tourism and business. But the most important thing is the people. What comes first? Human capital.”

Isko has also gained plaudits for sacking underperforming officials. As he told Team Ceritalah: “I have relieved nine police officers in the first three weeks [of my term], because they were not doing their jobs. That’s why people are afraid for my safety. But so what? That’s what you call [an] occupational hazard. It’s part of the job.”

However, unlike the infinitely more aggressive Duterte, Isko isn’t a fan of extreme methods. As he explains: “A lot of drug-related criminals are being apprehended alive…I respect human rights and the due process of law. We are firm in implementing things. I have to make sure the enforcement unit doesn’t abuse their authority in apprehending criminals.”

The excitement surrounding the mayor has been infectious. It’s even reached the republic’s business elite, some of whom – from Tessy Sy of the SM retail giant to Fernando Zobel of the Ayala Corporation – have made the trek to Manila.

There’s even talk of an eventual 2022 run for the presidency, of Isko being the counterweight to the seemingly unstoppable Duterte political machine.

Indeed, it’s tempting to see the parallels between Isko’s rise with not only Duterte’s, but that other well-known former South-East Asian mayor, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo.

All three men came from outside the national political elite and were known for their people-centric approaches to administration.

While we weren’t able to discuss his presidential ambitions, Isko did mention that he admired Jokowi’s commitment to defending Indonesia’s sovereignty vis-à-vis China, saying, “That’s how you protect your country.”

It appears that Manila’s mayor is treading a well-worn path to power. Cynics will say that it’s all been done before.

Like Duterte, he is firm and strict. However, what differentiates Isko from the incumbent and the rest of the Philippine elite is his compassion, his groundedness and his genuine desire to uplift the dignity of his people.

Regardless of what happens in the future, that is what will make the difference.

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