Observing, with utmost horror, his country’s ghastly descent into fascism, Antonio Gramsci warned against “[a] common error in historico-political analysis,” namely the “inability to find the correct relation between what is organic and what is conjunctural.” In layman’s lexicon, we should distinguish between temporary, cyclical change, on one hand, and long-term, fundamental changes, on the other.
As I wrote in my book “The Rise of Duterte”, Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s rise to the presidency wasn’t just some freak accident. He is neither a Manchurian candidate, nor just a ‘protest vote’. At a more fundamental level, his rise, and continued popularity, is a reflection of the political zeitgeist that has gripped our nation.
As an authoritative study, entitled “The Signs of Deconsolidation” (published by the Journal of Democracy), shows, recent years saw close to 60 percent of Filipinos expressing their preference for “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.” A more recent survey by the Pew Research Center, meanwhile, shows that as many as 8 out of 10 Filipinos either prefer or are comfortable with a leader, who doesn’t bother with institutional checks and balances.
Interestingly, almost exactly the same numbers were observed in other ‘emerging market democracies’ such as India (Narendra Modi) and Indonesia (Joko Widodo), where local-government-leaders-turned-national-populists are in also charge. In short, Duterte’s rise is less unique and surprising than meets the eye. And of course, let’s not forget that he won only a plurality (39 percent) of votes in the 2016 elections -- and benefited largely from the fratricide among reformist-liberal rivals.
What’s clear is that there is an element of ‘democracy fatigue’ among many Filipinos, as in elsewhere, thus the preference for single-minded, decisive leaders, who could transcend institutional paralysis and endemic corruption prevalent in fledgling democracies. As Stanford scholar Francis Fukuyama correctly emphasized, “distinguishing between what is essential and what is contingent or accidental” is central to detecting seismic shifts in the political landscape.
And this is where Mayor Isko Moreno is potentially a political earthquake. Within a month in office, he has turned into a phenomenon, precisely because he has skillfully tapped into public yearning for a decisive leader, who is willing to literally clean things up, as we have seen in, inter alia, Divisoria. From relative obscurity, if not potential political twilight only few years ago, Isko has now become our most prominent rising star – and potentially our next president.
He is at once a younger version of Duterte, but far more. Just like the current president, he has been catapulted to national prominence through his deeds as a mayor. And similar to Duterte, he knows how to capture the headlines. They are both extremely media savvy.
Not to mention, ISKO’s genuinely ‘masa’ background, while Duterte comes from a prominent local political dynasty in Davao. ISKO was literally ‘a man of the streets’, growing up in Manila’s foreboding slums. And he can speak the language of the street better than anyone else in our national political landscape.
ISKO is what I call a case of ‘double upward mobility’, first from poverty to material comfort, following his entry into entertainment industry, and, in more recent years, transformation into a world-class statesman through sheer discipline and good education.
He is more than Duterte in many ways, however, largely thanks to his self-discipline, genuine humility, and stubborn willingness to learn and self-improve.
Above all, he is what I call an ‘alt-populist’, a thoroughly progressive-liberal semi-outsider statesman, who can speak the language of populism, but shuns its prejudices, arbitrariness and authoritarian temptations.
In short, they have the charisma of demagogues minus their political toxicity. This breed of young, dynamic, progressive and charismatic leaders include the likes of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir in Iceland, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, and Slovakian hipster-president Zuzana Caputova, among others.
ISKO is just the latest manifestation of this global trend, as authoritarian populists face their match in their younger, progressive ‘alt-populist’ counterparts. And he has the courage and conviction to express his views, despite potentially negative political ramifications. When asked about his opinion on Duterte’s public projection, ISKO said:
“I think it is our moral obligation we, in the government, or artists for that matter, na kung prino-project naman namin ang aming sarili dala ng maraming fans namin, kailangan nandoon naman sa tolerable level. Minsan sumasablay pa nga ako. Kita mo naman lumalabas sa bibig ko, pero linilimitahan ko yun. Self-discipline yun eh. Na hindi mo naman ipinagkakaila sa taumbayan o ikinukubli kung ano ang nakaraan mo. Alam na nila yun eh, naiintindihan ka nila but hindi mo na kailangan ipagyabang pa ang mga salitang sa tingin mo naman hindi nababagay na mapanood o mapakinggan ng mga bata, especially when you are addressing the country.
On human rights, a topic of greater irritation to the president, who has overseen a bloody drug war, which has reportedly claimed the lives of thousands of suspected drug dealers sans any proper due process, this is what ISKO had to say: “We will respect human rights. As mu personal belief, Diyos lang ang may karapatang kumitil ng buhay. At hindi tayo papaya kung may mga sinong inbidiwal ang aabusp”. Now, contrast this to Duterte’s brazen encouragement of bloodbath before security forces.
ISKO is arguably the best person to succeed Duterte, precisely because his brand of decisive leadership is driven by inspiration rather than fear. And he is a charismatic and strong-willed leader, who is willing to overcome the vicissitudes of democracy shorn of authoritarian theatrics and tyrannical violence. And through self-discipline, he hopes to lift our country to new heights. In his words: “Kung gusto talaga natin magsaayos, siguro ang disiplina nagsisimula rin sa atin…wala masama magpaalala, tayo rin bilang mga mamamayan, konting pagkukusa, pagsunod sa disiplina.” Thanks to ISKO, and other progressive local officials like him, there is certainly hope for our country. A lot, actually.