MANILA – The popular mayor of the Philippine capital said Wednesday he will run for president in next year’s elections, the latest aspirant in what is expected to be a crowded race to succeed the controversial Rodrigo Duterte.
Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, a child scavenger before becoming an actor then entering politics, told The Associated Press ahead of his public announcement that he would fight still-raging coronavirus outbreaks and long-entrenched poverty and promote democracy if he triumphs in the May 9 elections. He declared his bid in a speech at a public school in the slum area near where he grew up. With him was his vice presidential running mate, Willie Ong, a cardiologist who provides medical advice to ordinary Filipinos on a Facebook account with more than 16 million followers.
“In all humility, I announce to you my countrymen, this coming May please accept my application as president of the Philippines,” he said to the applause of his supporters.
He said he was pushed to run not by high ambition but by the sorry state of the country, as he criticized the Duterte administration’s pandemic response, including the lack of life-saving medicines to combat COVID-19.
““I have pulled myself out of the gutter with no Daddy Warbucks helping me along,” he said, adding that he believes in hard work and straight talk.
Of the poor, he said: “You give them red carpet treatment, not red tape.”
While the 46-year-old mayor is expected to bank on his rags-to-power life story, movie star looks and widely praised projects in Manila, including cleaning up its filthy main roads and restoring order in its chaotic streets and public markets, Moreno will be up against formidable national politicians and celebrities.
Two senators have declared their intent to run — international boxing star Manny Pacquiao and Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief. At least seven other politicians have said they were considering either a presidential run or lower posts, including Vice President Leni Robredo, who leads the opposition; Duterte’s daughter, who is the mayor of their southern hometown city, and a son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Duterte’s successor stands to inherit enormous problems led by the pandemic, a battered economy, long-entrenched poverty and decades-long communist and Muslim insurgencies.
“This is not about Mr. and Mrs. Congeniality. This is about making hard decisions and sacrifices,” Moreno told AP. From “a rotten and downtrodden city,” Manila reemerged as a competitive and much-improved capital under him in less than two years “because of fast action and fast decision-making and not getting stuck by digging up past baggage and just moving on,” he said.
Moreno said he picked a doctor instead of a political heavyweight as his running mate so his vice president could focus on the pandemic while he leads efforts for an economic rebound if they win.
“It’s politically unorthodox, but it makes sense,” said Moreno.
With the pandemic wreaking one of the worst recessions and setting unemployment and hunger to alarming levels in the Philippines, the Duterte administration’s often-criticized handling of the immense health crisis will likely become a major issue in the elections.
Authorities have reported more than 2.4 million COVID-19 cases with more than 37,000 deaths in the country, the second-highest tolls in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.
A far more divisive and emotional issue is the 76-year-old Duterte himself. His constitutionally limited single six-year presidential term ends in June but he has touched off a constitutional debate by accepting his ruling party’s nomination to run as vice president. If the still-popular Duterte pursues the candidacy and wins, that could prospectively restore him to the presidency if the elected leader dies or becomes ineligible to remain in office for any reason. A leading constitutional expert said he would question the legality of Duterte’s action in the Supreme Court if the outgoing leader formalizes his candidacy before the Commission on Elections.
Human rights groups and other critics have expressed shock over Duterte’s move, which they said aims to shield him from domestic and international prosecution over his bloody anti-drugs crackdown, which has left thousands of mostly petty suspects dead.
He has fiercely attacked his most outspoken critics, including a senator who has been jailed for four years for criminal charges she said were fabricated to muzzle her. Moreno has generally kept friendly ties with Duterte, but two weeks ago, he slammed the tough-talking president’s administration for its handling of the pandemic and his obscene attacks against opponents and pleaded that he remove thieves in government. He challenged Duterte to a confrontation in Tondo, the Manila slum where Moreno grew up.
The son of a stevedore, Moreno scavenged for leftover food from restaurants as a child and collected scrap bottles and newspapers for money, according to the mayor’s website.
In 1993, he was spotted at a funeral wake by a show business recruiter in a crucial turning point in his life that landed him in the movies, which, five years later would serve as his springboard to politics.
A hands-on mayor, Moreno has been compared to Duterte and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo who both rose to the presidency after serving as city mayors despite coming from outside the political elite.
“Isko resonates with the ‘regular guy’ image of Duterte minus the cursing and misogyny,” says Jean Encinas-Franco, a political science associate professor at the University of the Philippines. “He is also telegenic and youthful. Hence, it is easy to package him as representing change.”