Over the past few months, I have had the privilege of meeting and extensively interviewing among the most fascinating political figures, ranging from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzna (twice) and former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to DILG Secretary Eduardo Ano, Senator Antonio Trillanes, and, of course, Justice Antonio Carpio, among other senior officials and statesmen.
Mind you: This doesn’t include off-cam exchanges with remarkable female leaders, including Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen and Vice-President Leni Robredo; as well as my favorite contemporary Filipino president, Fidel Ramos. We are hoping to interview, among others, President Rodrigo Duterte in coming months, of course. In short, it has been few months of humbling encounters with remarkable persons across the political spectrum.
The interview with Mayor Isko Moreno, however, stood out for one reason. Not only was this my first on-cam exchange with a local government official (all previous ones were with heads of state, cabinet officials, Supreme Court Justice, and top legislators), but there was something even more astonishing at play: For the first time, the interview generated almost-universal acclaim (hearts and likes, to be more accurate) online – and, I would hazard to say, bordered the troll-free territory.
This is more astonishing when one considers the fact that the interview lasted close to one hour, covering a wide range of critical issues, and has, so far, generated around 500 thousand combined views. During the interview, I managed to ask Isko about his views on reckless public pronouncements by political leaders, evidence-based public policy-making, and extrajudicial killings. On all three issues, his stance was remarkably different from the old man in the white palace.
The Manila Mayor emphasized the necessity for modern public administration, scientific mapping of Manila’s topography, and learning from best practices around the world. In short: 21st century style of governance – this, seemingly, is Isko’s political philosophy.
As a politician, Isko understandably tried to soften the edge against the president by stating that authenticity and emotional transparency matter. Yet, crucially he made it clear that: “As a general rule, you really have to be careful especially on a particular position kasi it’s going to be a policy without even writing it…A lot of people down the line will always use and utilize words coming from your mouth and you might be sending the wrong signal.”
It was on the issue of EJK, where I think he was at his best, especially considering the sensitive nature of the issue and, certainly, his political position as the biggest new star on the block, which comes with its own disadvantages and negative attention from potential rivals: “I don’t like EJK…. [no, no, no head movement]… I don’t like EJK,” maintaining that under his administration, there are “guidelines” and “directions” against it in Manila. Reports suggest, however, that EJK is still taking place in Manila, but Isko made a crucial intervention: He categorically opposed it in principle, again a remarkable departure from the position of the powers that be.
No wonder, there were the expected queen-trolls and micro-trolling to add spice to the action. Nonetheless, this minor irritant was overwhelmingly buried under an outpouring of good will, including from some of my reliable critics online. He truly inspires the best in people. What happened was close to impossible. After three years of enduring systematic and unremitting trolling, character assassination, and even legal harassment (I was subpoenaed on trumped up charges of most ridiculous proportions, with an enthusiastic DDS official even posting my home address in PUBLIC, an issue that I can easily take to top government officials anytime if not courts), I couldn’t believe my eyes: Almost 99 percent of the comments were full of…. LOVE (of course majority were directed towards YORME, but a lot of positive comments also greeted the interview itself).
Almost involuntarily, I got teary-eyed, remembering the pre-2016 ‘good old days’, when I could reliably look forward to public appreciation of my relatively competent media appearances, though back then I was, admittedly, mostly confined to foreign affairs issues and steered clear of domestic politics. Obviously, everything changed with Dutetre, so much so that I felt compelled, as a thinker and writer, to pen the first systematic-academic internationally published book on his presidency (see “The Rise of Duterte”, Palgrave Macmillan).
Obviously, it’s too early to say what kind of mayor Isko will turn out to be over the medium-to-long-run, though one can look at his track record over the past two decades in deputy-auxiliary elected positions. But his brand of populism, which I have termed as “alt-populism”, seems perfect for our contemporary zeitgeist.
Let me be very clear with my position: It’s less about what he is as a person, as an imperfect human in flesh, but more of what, to use psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s terminology, ‘archetype’ of leadership he represents. We are, after all, in the midst of an ideological, not only political, battle for the soul of our nation. Isko is far from perfect, and may end up disappointing all of us in the future, but as the great Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck once poignantly remarked: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”.