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Explained: How Mayors Become Presidents

From City Hall to Malacañang.
by Ara Eugenio
Jan 12, 2021
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If the national elections were held today, two incumbent mayors will become president and vice president  Sara Duterte-Carpio of Davao City and Isko Moreno of Manila. It's an affirmation of the political path that has been tested here and abroad: from city hall to the presidential palace.

Duterte-Carpio's father, President Rodrigo Duterte, blazed the trail and up to now, he is still addressed as "mayor" or "president-mayor." In neighboring Indonesia, there's President Joko Widodo and in Europe, British Prime Minister and Brexit champion Boris Johnson.

Why are mayors becoming presidents? It's because the electorate sees in them both a local and a national leader, said Dennis Coronacion, head of the University of Santo Tomas Political Science Department.

"Yung mayor-president kasi, it’s a marriage between two levels of government that are usually seen as detached from each other. When you have that title, even though you’re already the highest government official as president, it says you’re close to the masses or the people," Coronacion told reportr.

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"Somehow tinatry niya i-bridge yung gap by using the term. It’s very appealing to some kaya meron yang political value," he said.

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Mayors make national issues relatable

All politics is local and voters identify with national politicians who can bring down national issues to the local level, Coronacion said.

"National candidates would usually campaign issues that people seem detached to, like the economy. They would usually speak of eradicating poverty, which is important, but the way poverty is usually presented to the people isn’t very relatable," he said. 

When he ran in 2016, Duterte picked a relatable issue, drug addiction, to tackle the larger peace and order problem, he said. The drug war would become the centerpiece of his administration.

"People tend to believe you if the problem you’re talking about and the solution that goes with it directly affect them. Kapag hindi directly naapektuhan sila, 'di nila ma-appreciate. And so when Duterte ran that campaign, he made it seem as if he was resolving the gap between the national and local government," said Coronacion. 

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Past mayors were not as successful

Former President Joseph Estrada, a former senator and San Juan mayor, was ousted on corruption charges in 2001, serving barely half of his term. He staged a political comeback as Manila Mayor in 2013, but lost to his former vice mayor, Isko Moreno in 2019.

In 1998, former Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim tried to parlay his "Dirty Harry" campaign against crime to the presidency, but lost to Estrada. He even secured an endorsement from former President Cory Aquino.

While appealing to the electorate with their local take on national issues, Coronacion said local executives-turned-national leaders must learn how to look at the big picture.

"The challenge is how to strike the balance between the local and national. Problema ng national leader, sobrang lawak ng tinitignan nilang needs," he said.

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Up next: another mayor president?

Both Duterte-Carpio and Moreno both played down their strong survey showings and said they would rather focus on leading their respective cities.

Many other millennial and Gen Z mayors have also grown so popular that they are tipped for higher office. Take Pasig City's Mayor Vico Sotto. In the U.S., there's ex-Southbend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who lost the Democratic nomination to President-elect Joe Biden.

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"It remains to be seen. Historically, in the Philippines, there is no formula to win an election," said Coronacion.

Until the deadline of filing for candidacy for the 2016 vote, President Duterte kept his supporters guessing, not saying yes immediately, even if Duterte-Carpio at that time shaved her head in a show of support.

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Staying focused on the work at hand could work to the advantage of Duterte-Carpio and Moreno. Being upfront too early could turn a presidential aspirant into a target

Vice President Jejomar Binay, who rose to the second highest post in the land on account of his decades-long leadership of Makati City, parried numerous corruption allegations until the 2016 vote, where he placed fourth.

"It’s a template statement. If you make yourself seem na hindi ka greedy sa kapangyarihan, people will like you so it helps to keep on denying. But every politician has the intention of becoming the country’s president, very few nalang yung ayaw. Let’s just assume na all of them want to run if they were given the chance to," he said.

"But what we're sure of here is that Duterte was able to pave a way on how to catapult yourself to national power straight from the local government. It may or may have not been ideal, but he was able to show that it can be done," said Coronacion.

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