MANILA - Manila’s youthful mayor with a compelling rags-to-riches story on Wednesday (Sept 22) officially announced that he will run for president next year, giving the opposition a candidate that can mount a credible challenge to President Rodrigo Duterte’s bid to continue to rule through proxies.
Mr Isko Moreno, 46, is the second-most-popular candidate for the country’s top political office, after Ms Sara Duterte, 43, Mr Duterte’s eldest daughter and the mayor of Davao city, who has been coy about her intentions.
“It’s not high ambition that led to this decision. It’s the desperate, miserable condition we now find ourselves in,” Mr Moreno told a gathering of his supporters.
He said he was running for president to undo what he saw as the Duterte administration’s poor response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Other countries have applied best practices and came up with scientific solutions. We, on the other hand, have used our people as guinea pigs in the longest and strictest experiment of unlimited quarantines. We’ve been quarantining for 557 days, but instead of flattening the curve we have flattened the economy,” he said.
The Philippines is the second-worst hit country in South-east Asia with over 2.4 million Covid-19 cases and a death toll of more than 37,000.
The Health Ministry has been registering some 20,000 cases a day in recent weeks, as the government tries to contain the spread of the extremely infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus with a mix of quarantine restrictions and hard, targeted lockdowns.
From scavenger to actor to politician
Mr Moreno, who grew up dirt poor in a rough district with a murder rate of one a day, leaned on his past to establish his credentials.
“If you’re born on the wrong side of the city, at the bottom of the city, you can’t escape profiling in life… There are many things off limits to you when you’re poor: education, health, housing, a job. It’s not just food you’re trying to dig out of rubbish bins. You’re also always begging for respect,” he said.
He was born and raised in Tondo, Manila’s largest but poorest district known for its slums and hardscrabble neighbourhoods. He announced his run at the site of his largest housing project in Tondo.
As a child, Mr Moreno scavenged for scraps in landfills and collected old newspapers to help his family make ends meet. He also foraged for leftovers from restaurants which his mother reheated for dinner.
A talent scout spotted him during a wake in 1993. He was 18 then and his good looks stood out from his usually scraggy peers. He later appeared in a popular variety show, moving soon to TV dramas and movies.
While still working as an actor, and still a youthful 23, he was elected to the Manila City Council.
He served as deputy to Mayor Alfredo Lim and then Mayor Joseph Estrada, who was previously president of the Philippines, from 2007 to 2016.
Mr Moreno ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2016.
In May 2019, he handily defeated Mr Estrada, who like him was born in Tondo and also parlayed his fame as an actor into a political career, in the Manila mayoral election.
Mr Moreno has since drawn praise as mayor of the country’s sprawling capital.
He removed illegal stalls from the streets. He also sought to improve public order by enacting a nighttime curfew for children aged 17 and under.
His response to the pandemic has also made him very popular among those living in Manila.
He has overseen a massive vaccine rollout, and cash and food dole-outs for poor households in the city. He has had field hospitals and isolation centres built, and has lately been criticising the government for prioritising purchases of face shields instead of drugs desperately needed by Covid-19 patients on life support.
Mr Duterte, who was mayor of Davao for over 20 years, early on credited Mr Moreno with improving public order in Manila.
But when it became clear that Mr Moreno was interested in his office, Mr Duterte began deriding him.
He called Mr Moreno a fool and a stripper, referring to the suggestive photos of the mayor wearing nothing but his underwear taken during his years as a struggling actor.
Mr Moreno responded by mocking Mr Duterte for wasting time by looking at his old, sexy photos instead of attending to the pandemic.
He was more pointed with his attacks on Wednesday. He called out Mr Duterte for his penchant for cussing and making lewd, sexist remarks in public.
"I've never had to wash my mouth with soap," he said.
Mr Moreno joins boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, 42, and Senator Panfilo Lacson, 73, who gained prominence when he served as Mr Estrada’s chief anti-crime enforcer, in announcing their candidacy for the presidency.
All three have publicly challenged Mr Duterte, though they have also distanced themselves from the mainstream opposition.
The opposition’s bet, Vice-President Leni Robredo, 56, has yet to decide if she will run for president. But she is bringing up the rear in recent polls.
Ms Sara Duterte has been consistently topping polls, but she recently said that she will be running for re-election as Davao mayor instead. Political analysts say she might still make a last-minute bid for the presidency, as her father did in 2015.
Mr Duterte himself is running for vice-president, in what critics say is a bid to avoid prosecution for his bloody drug war and allegations of massive corruption in his government. The Constitution limits the president to just one six-year term.
Former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., 64, son and namesake of the late dictator, has also been gathering endorsements to beef up his own bid for the presidency.