Manila mayor "Isko" has presidential ambitions. Photo: Facebook

This interview was conducted by Asia Times correspondent Richard Heydarian in English and Filipino on December 10, 2022, at the office of Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso at Manila City Hall. This is the first of two parts, which have been edited for clarity.

Richard Heydarian: Mayor, within just two months, you went from a potential unity “opposition candidate” to a centrist “healing president” candidate and now openly seeking Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s endorsement, thus potentially becoming the administration’s bet. Many observers are trying to wrap their head around this seemingly radical change. What’s going on?

Isko: When I say unity and healing, we’re talking about our commonalities [as Filipinos] and how to address existing challenges in the country. I can work with anybody, whether “dilaw” [yellow associated with the opposition], or “pula” [red associated with the administration], administration or opposition.

We must work together because there are real and present challenges to deal with. This is about “unity in healing”, not being in administration or opposition, but instead addressing pressing issues.

Of course, we may disagree with some political views or ideologies, but first things first. How can we lift people out of their current predicament? How can we address basic challenges in terms of inflation, rising cost of living, and basic sense of insecurity, especially amid the pandemic?

The government is about the people, not about us politicians and winning elections per se. The primary focus of decision-making is the resolution of basic problems of society.

Nevertheless, sometimes you need to bend a little, because you should also win (elections). You cannot change things from outside the system, you have to change it from within. It’s from within the government that you can pursue your aspirations for the people and the country.

Covid has ravaged the economy and corruption has soared under President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AFP / Lisa Marie David

Heydarian: Mayor, you have an interesting campaign team, which includes both administration stalwarts as well as progressive elements like the Aksyon Demokratiko [AD] Party and former liberal opposition candidates. Was this a spontaneous development or a deliberate strategy?

Isko: To be honest, this just came naturally. Perhaps they simply believe in what I’ve been saying, my performance (as a mayor), my goals. I think they are looking for someone who can address the problems [of the county] and perhaps they found that person in me. I never asked anyone from what camp they came from when they asked to join my campaign. This is a democracy, and we are open to support from all walks of life and across the ideological spectrum. 

This is about swift decision-making, hence my “Bilis Kilos” (rapid action) initiative in terms of governance. We can’t live on arguments and “cancel culture” and old ideological debates alone. Maybe you can do that in Disneyland or some Wonderland but this is real life, where you face a real situation and real threats. I think ideological purity will never work in the real political world.

This is the real world, we need to deal with the pandemic and basic problems such as inflation. We can’t accomplish this if we insist on our own point of view and take a sanctimonious holier-than-thou position. I’m not a dictator. I’m willing to listen to points of views from all sides. If you make sense, I will listen, and adopt accordingly.

Heydarian: Your party, AD, recently said that it’s a “centrist”, not an “opposition”, party. What do you mean by “centrist”? Back in 2016, Senator Grace Poe adopted a similar “centrist” strategy but obviously it didn’t work out against someone like Duterte, who had a more radical agenda, or, some would say, uncompromising “conviction politics” on law and order issues. So, how do you hope to make “centrism” work this time?

Isko: For me, “centrist” politics is people-based decision-making. Whatever policy we’re talking about, whether our participation in the International Criminal Court or the Arbitration Ruling at The Hague in the South China Sea or the Mutual Defense Treaty with the US, my question is simple: “What is there for us”? I will follow the pragmatic approach of leaders like (former Singaporean Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew. For now let’s focus on our commonalties, gather around the same table, and work on solving the problems.

Heydarian: Can you tell us about your stance on some sensitive issues, where some would argue conviction should trump “centrist” compromise. For instance, can we talk about your stance on the South China Sea disputes? How should we deal with China and incursions into Philippine waters? Would you try to find a “common ground” on sensitive territorial and maritime issues?

Isko: Conviction is based on situation. Decisions should be based on proper assessment of the situation on the ground. If you enter our waters, if you are a foreign ship without our authorities, we will make your ship a sub-sea decoration.

This is not targeted against specific country per se, but instead any foreign vessel violating our sovereign rights in the South China Sea. We will make sure to implement our own laws within our own territories and waters.

A fleet of Chinese ships sparked a diplomatic row after parking at a reef off the Philippines for weeks. Photo: AFP/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea

We need to trade with China, America and the world. We will be fair. But we should make sure that any cooperative agreement shouldn’t become a one-way deal. For instance, there is a country that offers trade agreements, knowing that we have nothing to export back to them.  That can’t be. We have to make sure that any trade deal will be mutually beneficial.

We have to make our convictions clear, but also adjust our tactics to a particular situation at hand. From what I understand, this is also how the Singaporeans dealt with foreign powers, thus its success as a global trading hub. Results matter to me. We need a results-oriented approach in governance, in foreign policy-making.

Heydarian: To be clear, what are going to be the continuities and changes in terms of Philippine foreign policy should you become the next president? In particular, how would you deal with the South China Sea disputes?

Isko: Whatever is happening [i.e., reclamation and militarization of disputed islands] there should stop. We need a freeze [on unilateral activities], then start talking [with rival claimants], and discuss whether we can meet half-way. Our big concern is the threat to our food security, considering our reliance on fisheries resources in the South China Sea.

This is a national security threat that we need to deal with. We are an archipelagic country, surrounded by waters. So how come we import fish? We need to fix this by pursuing cooperative agreements to ensure our food security.

Heydarian: What about Philippine allies, the Americans?

Isko: I hope they will come [to our help if needed]. Their presence in the region matters. We will continue to recognize treaties and agreements with our allies. The Mutual Defense Treaty with the US is important to us. We need to reinforce and strengthen our relations with allies as well as new strategic partners.

Alliances and harmonious foreign relations is important, because we need to focus on social services. I’m people-oriented, so my ultimate focus is on indicators such as the Human Development Index (HDI) and the welfare of ordinary people. Development is key. As someone [James Carville] put it, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso, known by his screen name Isko Moreno, after filing his candidacy for the country’s 2022 presidential race on October 4, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ezra Acayan

Heydarian: Would you be open to resource-sharing agreements with China in Philippine waters?

Isko: What is the difference between our service contracts with Western companies and a [potential] one with Chinese companies? Because we don’t have sufficient capabilities to explore our own resources, therefore we need to be open to working with foreign companies.

But we need to ensure that the issue of ownership [sovereignty] is clear. Let’s do business, but there is no compromise on sovereignty issues. They will have to recognize our sovereignty. If your mind is set, no one can fool you.

Part 2 of the interview will be published on December 14.

Follow Richard Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian