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HORIZONS

Isko Moreno: The dark horse?

As in life, politics can also follow an arc of redemption. Just few months ago, Ukraine’s leading journalists dismissed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s stint in office as a reverse fairy tale. Critics viewed Zelenskyy as a man who was presidential in his best-selling show, “Servant of the People” (2015), while supposedly acting like a comedian upon ascending to the actual presidential palace.

Olga Rodenko, chief editor at the famed Kyiv Independent, described Zelenskyy as “dispiritingly mediocre,” a “showman,” and “performer” who has been exposed by realities of politics even as he “treat[s] everything like a show.” She characterized the young Ukrainian president as “notoriously thin-skinned,” a former actor who apparently can’t take “criticism and challenging questions” from the press.

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A natural populist, with an impeccable reading of the popular pulse, Zelenskyy, a lawyer by training, cruised his way to the presidency by leveraging his outsider status, folksy charisma, and linguistic acumen. His first years in power, however, were rocked by scandals, ranging from his awkward phone conversation with former US president Donald Trump to the appointment of his buddies to key administration positions.

His campaign against Ukraine’s “oligarchs,” meanwhile, was seemingly more performative than results-oriented. Large numbers of Ukrainians seemingly soured on the youthful president. As many as 62 percent of Ukrainians expressed opposition to any potential re-election bid by Zelenskyy, with polls suggesting that he could count on only a quarter of the votes (25 percent) had he forced his way into another presidential run.

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Crucially, more than half (53 percent) of Ukrainians questioned whether Zelenskyy was able to defend the country in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion. Once the “darkest hour” approached, however, Zelenskyy not only rose to the occasion but even transcended it. Almost overnight, the youthful Ukrainian leader transformed into the Churchill of our era, inspiring millions of his countrymen to resist aggressors against all odds.

Not long ago, another youthful populist, our very own Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, had his own political moment, which caught the world’s attention. From his humble beginnings as a scavenger in the slums, he not only rose to become a celebrity but also a remarkably capable mayor in Manila, which experienced a heartening transformation in recent years.

The upshot was his unlikely emergence as a top contender for the highest office of the land just months before the presidential election kick-started. For some reason, however, the hype may have clouded much-needed humility once the crucial moment arrived. In a bizarre turn of events, the charismatic mayor seemingly began snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

First of all, he made the surprising decision to effectively reshuffle his extremely successful team, which included no less than his former chief of staff Cesar Chavez. By bringing in one of the impresarios of the 2016 Duterte presidential campaign, he began alienating large numbers of liberal-left supporters, who initially saw in Isko a viable alternative to a potential Sara Duterte or Ferdinand Marcos Jr. candidacy.

This left him utterly unprepared for Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo’s presidential run, which was partly justified on the grounds that Isko is nothing more than a “Duterte lite.” To make matters worse, what followed were a series of communications mishaps and unfathomably contradictory stances, which allowed critics to dismiss the Manila mayor as an opportunistic politician.

And Isko’s latest “press conference” along with a number of embittered presidential candidates, who have openly lashed out at Leni rather than actually forging a united front against the frontrunner, has made matters even more complicated for the Manila mayor.

Nevertheless, Isko is far from a spent force. Various studies show that not only is he the top second-preferred candidate, giving him lots of room for maneuver, but also the least polarizing candidate among the median voters. His campaign, meanwhile, still includes progressive elements, most especially Aksyon Demokratiko, while his Senate slate boasts progressive figures, such as Samira Gutoc and Carl Balita.

And since Isko’s base has a large overlap with Marcos Jr.’s base, any surge in his preference rating would automatically make the race far more competitive for the opposition. At the very least, Isko could end up as the “kingmaker,” if not “queenmaker,” in one of the most consequential presidential election of our era.

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TAGS: #VotePH2022, 2022 presidential race, Horizons, Isko Moreno, Richard Heydarian
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