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He Scrounged For Food As A Boy. Now, He Hopes To Be Next President Of The Philippines

Manila City Mayor Isko Moreno gestures after declaring his bid to run for president in a speech at a public school in the slum area near the place where he grew up in Manila, Philippines on Wednesday Sept. 22, 2021.

He once scavenged through garbage heaps to help feed his family in one of Manila's most distressed slums. But today, Isko Moreno has launched himself on a bid to rule the Philippines.

Moreno, the Manila City mayor and former actor, announced Wednesday he's running to succeed President Rodrigo Duterte, whose term ends in June 2022.

Moreno's entry into the race has sparked attention because of his relative meteoric rise and his potential to upset a growing field of contenders who are vying for the highest office.

In 2019, Moreno defeated the incumbent – a former Philippine president – to become mayor of Manila City, population 1.8 million. Manila City is the country's capital and one of the sixteen different municipalities that make up greater Manila.

The 46-year-old is now the third high-profile aspirant to enter the race after Philippine boxing legend Manny Pacquiao and Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief. The polling group Pulse Asia released a public opinion survey in July showing Moreno a strong contender, the second choice to become the country's next leader behind Duterte's daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, who has said she won't run but observers expect that could change.

Moreno, born Francisco Domagoso, is more popularly known as Isko Moreno, his screen name from his days as an actor. His official Manila City bio says that in 1993, "the fair-skinned Domagoso caught the attention of Filipino talent scout Wowie Roxas who was attending a funeral in Tondo," Domagoso's home village. He changed his name and entered show business propelled by youth and good looks.

His district as mayor is both posh and impoverished. It encompasses Old Manila with its Cathedral Spanish-era Intramuros fort, and the president's Malacañang Palace. The district is also home to Tondo, the hard-scrabble neighborhood where he grew up an only child hauling trash, and scrounging for food that his mother is said to have "repurposed" into family dinners. His father was a stevedore on the nearby docks.

The next president faces myriad challenges

Duterte's successor stands to inherit weighty problems: the pandemic, a battered economy, long-entrenched poverty and decades-long insurgencies waged by communists and Muslim rebel groups.

In announcing his presidential bid, Moreno said were he to win the May 9, 2022 election, he would combat COVID-19, which has killed 37,000 in the Philippines, battle on behalf of the poor, and promote democracy.

He chose as his running Willie Ong, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 2019. A cardiologist, Ong has a huge social media base, and provides medical advice to Filipinos on a Facebook account that has more than 16 million followers.

"It's politically unorthodox, but it makes sense," Moreno said of his choice for running mate.

If elected, Moreno says he'll focus on resuscitating the economy while his vice president would focus on the pandemic.

Moreno has grown more critical of Duterte

Moreno had been a supporter of President Duterte, and has been criticized for his silence on Duterte's bloody war on drugs in which police operations have killed thousands, mostly poor Filipinos, many of them in the slums of Manila.

But in the last year, Moreno began to criticize the 76-year-old president amid a worsening pandemic, which in turn provoked Duterte to mock Moreno's former life as an actor. Moreno has also condemned the emerging corruption allegations involving the Duterte government's procuring of pandemic-related goods and equipment at inflated prices.

As he appealed to Filipinos for support Wednesday, Moreno took a swipe at Duterte's often crude public pronouncements.

"Yes, I grew up being poor," Moreno said. "But I have never been bad-mannered. Although I've lived in the trash, not once did I become foul-mouthed."

For his part President Duterte, who cannot seek a second term under the country's constitution, has confirmed he will run for the vice presidency, a move his critics say is merely a bid to extend his time in power in the hope of avoiding a legal reckoning over his human rights record. The International Criminal Court, which Duterte scorns, has launched a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity in connection with the government's drug war.

According to some analysts, as a candidate Moreno is perceived by the Duterte family as perhaps its toughest rival. In his brief time as mayor, he has also earned praise for cleaning up the streets and building new housing for the poor.

Moreno's rags-to-riches story is also seen as inspirational, and his relative youth offers the promise of generational change in a country where 48% of the population of nearly 110 million people are under the age of 25.

"Isko resonates with the 'regular guy' image of Duterte minus the cursing and misogyny," says Jean Encinas-Franco, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines. "He is also telegenic and youthful. Hence, it is easy to package him as representing change."
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