Can the 'Macron of the Philippines' succeed Duterte?

Isko Moreno's election strategy mirrors the French president's 2017 campaign: combining technocracy with populism

Manila Mayor Isko Moreno is one of the frontrunners in the 2022 presidential race in the Philippines. AP Photo
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William Shakespeare once famously described the world as a stage, where men and women are merely players, each having "their exits and their entrances". It's the perfect analogy for Philippine politics today, particularly as business-as-usual drama is about to reach its crescendo ahead of next year's presidential election.

Throughout its centuries-long existence, the Philippines has been tossed among rapacious empires and self-serving elites. But it has not seen a leader quite like Rodrigo Duterte. For the past five years, the president has run the country like a personal fiefdom, dictating the course of politics and public discourse.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic, which triggered five quarters of recession and the deepest economic crisis in the country's modern history, has left the government exposed. As a result, a growing number of Filipinos are looking for alternatives, seeking competent leadership and a clear map for post-pandemic recovery.

Mr Duterte is entering his twilight months in power with rapidly declining approval ratings. Populist politics, nevertheless, continues to be a major force in the Philippines. Thus, almost all of his potential successors are presenting themselves as amalgams of technocratic competence and anti-establishment populism. Chief among them is the young and charismatic mayor of Manila, Francisco "Isko" Moreno, who is positioning himself as a kind of "Macron of the Philippines" – referring to French President Emmanuel Macron – wrapping proactive governance in populist rhetoric inside a broadly centrist political agenda.

This formulation is an outcome Mr Duterte's impact on the political landscape. A consummate politician with inscrutable charisma, the incumbent leader has faced a number of crises without losing his grip on the imagination of millions of Filipinos.

His political success is underpinned by a phenomenon called "performative populism", which involves mobilising a range of evocative symbols, powerful images and emotionally driven rhetoric, which collectively create an impression of decisive and sincere leadership. A public relations machinery – powered by an engaging disinformation campaign and a set of pro-Duterte social media influencers and bloggers with immense reach – has proven helpful.

It's precisely Mr Duterte's flair for the dramatic that explains the rollercoaster drama ahead of the 2022 presidential election.

In early November, the Davao City mayor and presidential daughter, Sara Duterte, toyed with the idea of running for the presidency, which would have placed her on a collision course with former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the namesake son of the former Filipino strongman. Ms Sara eventually settled for a vice-presidential run in tandem with the ascendant Mr Marcos. Unwilling to cede initiative, Mr Duterte threatened to run for the vice-presidency against his own daughter, only to drop the idea days later.

But while the dramatic turn of events captured public imagination, it's unlikely to indefinitely distract voters from the pandemic-led impoverishment throughout the country. All the key global rankings, from Nikkei Asia's Covid-19 Recovery Index to Bloomberg’s Resilience Index, have shown that, under Mr Duterte, the Philippines is among the world's laggards in pandemic management.

The Philippines has seen few leaders like President Rodrigo Duterte. AP Photo

Be that as it may, both Ms Sara and Mr Marcos have consistently topped surveys of potential contenders for the presidency, while relishing a nationwide network of supporters and massive electoral machines.

Yet, the heirs of two of the most influential Filipino political families are far from invincible. If anything, both "establishment candidates" are vulnerable to public backlash amid a prolonged economic crisis, which has wiped out a decade of developmental gains and driven millions of Filipinos into precarious employment conditions for years to come.

And yet, there is little indication that the public wants a reversion to a liberal-reformist past. Throughout the past decade, surveys have consistently shown a preference for decisive leaders, who can swiftly and effectively deliver public services. Surveys show that only about 15 per cent of Filipinos are committed to liberal democratic politics, meaning that the vast majority is possibly open to more populist, if not authoritarian, leaders.

This should come as no surprise. As the leading political scientist Cas Mudde explains, populism represents "an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism", and in the Philippines, the liberal elite broadly failed to bring about inclusive development after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in the mid-1980s.

To be fair, there is no consensus on the exact definition of populism, which is often conflated with authoritarian rule. In simplest terms, populism can be defined as a distinct style of politics and electoral mobilisation strategy, whereby the leader claims to be the true representative of the masses against a self-serving elite. This is why scholars such as Jan-Werner Muller insist that populism is inherently authoritarian, since it is "an exclusionary form of identity politics" that portrays all critics as public enemies.

The political scientist Chantal Mouffe has, however, argued that populism can also be channelled in a more progressive direction, especially when it's narrowly employed as a tactic to "mobilise progressive passions towards promotion of democratic designs".

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, left, the son of late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Sara Duterte, right, the daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, are a formidable tandem but they are also dynasts. Reuters
Like Isko Moreno, Manny Pacquiao, too, has tried to balance his image in his presidential campaign. AFP

Thus, enter alternative candidates in next year's presidential race.

Take the example of Vice President Leni Robredo, de facto opposition leader. On the one hand, she emphasises her humble roots to offset her affiliation with the largely discredited Liberal Party, while on the other, trumpets her technocratic background, including her training as an economist in one of the country's most prestigious universities.

Boxer-turned-senator Manny Pacquiao, with his rags-to-riches life story, is also presenting himself as the man of the people who will fight against corruption and oversee economic recovery by tapping into his global network of billionaire investors.

But it is Mr Isko, the capital city's mayor, who could represent the most potent version of technocratic populism.

There is little indication that the Filipino public wants a reversion to a liberal-reformist past

Raised in Manila's slums amid crushing poverty, the former movie actor is a natural populist who appears to have sensed the pulse of the people. He has shown remarkable ease in the company of entrepreneurs and tycoons, while being relatable with the public. This explains why he has consistently ranked among the top three candidates.

Stints at the Harvard and Oxford universities have given Mr Isko a good understanding of modern governance, too. Under his watch, Manila has become one of the country's best-performing local governments. He has also drawn international praise for his pandemic management, including setting up mass vaccination centres and makeshift hospitals. He is, meanwhile, attracting big businesses to the capital.

In recent weeks, he has also sought to showcase his nationalism by taking an increasingly populist stance vis-a-vis the Philippines' territorial disputes with China and other neighbouring countries in the South China Sea.

Similar to Mr Macron, who rose to power on the back of a technocratic-centrist campaign, Mr Isko is presenting himself as post-partisan figure who will serve as a "healing president" by prioritising technocratic solutions over ideological debates and partisan mudslinging.

A self-made man, Mr Isko has publicly chastised Ms Sara and Mr Marcos, characterising them as privileged dynasts, while actively courting the support of Mr Duterte, who has lately expressed his dislike for the Marcoses. For critics, Mr Isko is effectively becoming a "Duterte lite", a more gentle and youthful version of the incumbent populist.

The reality is that he and other candidates are trying to beat the Dutertes and the Marcoses at their own game by giving a new and increasingly resonant twist to populism. Whether this will be a winning strategy in five months' time, it is too soon to say.

Published: December 09, 2021, 4:00 AM