2022 PH presidential race

The lead-up to, and aftermath of, Isko Moreno’s ‘Leni withdraw’ call

Pia Ranada

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The lead-up to, and aftermath of, Isko Moreno’s ‘Leni withdraw’ call

BACK ON THE TRAIL. Manila Mayor Isko Moreno visits Surigao City a day after his joint press conference with other presidential bets.


The Manila mayor's call draws mixed reactions even from his supporters and inner circle
The lead-up to, and aftermath of, Isko Moreno’s ‘Leni withdraw’ call

SURIGAO CITY, Philippines – Isko Moreno’s call for Vice President Leni Robredo to back out of the presidential race and give survey laggards like him a chance came as a surprise to even his inner circle of advisers.

Definitely, the Manila mayor did not tell the other presidential bets in the stately Rigodon Ballroom of the Manila Peninsula that he was going to make such a big statement. He did not mention it during the meeting they held right before the press conference to plan out their messaging, according to two people who were present.

As far as Moreno is concerned, he was merely answering journalists’ questions honestly and was reacting to someone else who brought up the need for Robredo to withdraw – former defense secretary Norberto Gonzales.

“It was only a reaction to what Secretary Gonzales was saying, his analysis. And it makes sense. They say in basketball, if the player can’t shoot, substitute him,” said Moreno on Monday, April 18, in Surigao City, in a mix of Filipino and English. It was his first doorstop interview after the Makati press conference. (Watch the interview in full below.)

The lead-up to, and aftermath of, Isko Moreno’s ‘Leni withdraw’ call

The sequence of events bears him out but he didn’t get the idea from Gonzales. Moreno’s campaign team had been holding mobile phone survey results showing Robredo had higher voter non-preference ratings than Moreno.

Weeks before the Manila Peninsula press briefing, campaign manager Lito Banayo and Aksyon Demokratiko chairman Ernest Ramel had said these survey results show it’s Moreno, not Robredo, who has better chances of beating Marcos if it were a two-way race.

This survey, an April 6 mobile phone survey by market research firm Tangere, shows Robredo getting a 45% voter non-preference rating, meaning the percentage of respondents who said they would not want a specific candidate to be president. In contrast, Moreno’s voter non-preference rating was 2%, the lowest among eight candidates included in the survey.

Moreno’s team believes support for Robredo, while growing based on Pulse Asia surveys, has a “ceiling” not high enough to beat Marcos’ ratings.

Isko’s echo chamber?

Moreno has also been steeped in social media posts of pro-Duterte online personalities who champion the observation that a rabid “anyone but Leni” sentiment pushes voters who don’t like Marcos to vote for him just to prevent a “yellow-pink” presidency. These personalities point to Robredo’s 41% satisfaction rating recorded by Social Weather Stations in an old December 2021 survey. The rating was a 10-point dip from September that year.

In fact, days before the joint press conference, Moreno had already made a vague reference to Robredo’s withdrawal, after he was asked about Ikaw Muna (IM) Pilipinas’ calls for him to make the supreme “sacrifice” by withdrawing and backing the Vice President.

Ang pinakamaganda, siguro, ‘yung hindi na nag-go-grow na kandidato, dahil they are talking to their own echo chamber should also do the same supreme sacrifice,” he said.

(What’s better, maybe, is if it’s the candidate who is not growing because they are talking to their own echo chambers who should also do the same supreme sacrifice.)

And so when Gonzales voiced the opinion that the current number two should be replaced with a more “effective” candidate, Moreno had already known of such an analysis and privately agreed with it.

The idea for the press conference came from someone in Moreno’s inner circle. It was presented to Lacson who eventually agreed to it after the second Commission on Elections debate in early April. Lacson invited Gonzales, who then said he would invite former Duterte spokesman Ernesto Abella. It was also Lacson who contacted Senator Manny Pacquiao to join. Abella backed out at the last minute. Pacquiao could not make it supposedly due to transportation issues but he had joined the pre-press conference meeting through video call.

Backfiring or attracting soft Marcos voters?

What was unexpected was he would voice such a strong opinion, by himself, instead of letting others do the talking.

Some quarters, including supporters Rappler spoke with, think the move was risky and a turn-off to voters who may have been wavering between Robredo and Moreno. It is also seen to make pro-Robredo local government officials less open to hosting Moreno in their jurisdictions.

Supporters understand Moreno was hurt by Robredo supporters’ call for him to withdraw way back in October last year. But his recent move could rub people the wrong way.

Yung ‘withdraw Isko,’ galing sa mga supporter ni Leni, ‘di mismo kay Leni. I understand saan galing ang pagkapikon nila kay Leni pero iba dating sa tao,” Drieza Lininding, an Isko supporter from Marawi, told Rappler.

Another supporter, who wished not to be named due to their proximity to Isko’s campaign team, said they are considering switching support to another presidential bet after the “mess” of the press conference.

One supporter from a local government in Mindanao thinks Moreno was just being “real” and expressing an understandable “hugot” (grievance). Another supporter from the private sector in Butuan agreed but thinks it was “too early” for such moves and could turn off undecided voters.

Moreno, asked on Monday if he wasn’t being a hypocrite by calling on Robredo to withdraw in the same press conference where he deplored attempts to get him and others to withdraw, said, “Hindi naman ironic kasi you said it also, alam naman natin, day one pa lang, ‘pag sila malalaking grupo, okay lang na magsabi mag-withdraw.

(It’s not ironic because you know, and we know, that since day one, because they are a big group, it’s okay for them to say, “withdraw.”)

While Moreno claims he is the candidate who can give voters “peace of mind” and a respite from “toxic” political bickering, his “Leni withdraw” call has instead confused supporters and may have created the impression that he is the attacker.

Still, one Mindanao supporter said one good thing the press conference may have imparted is Moreno’s clarity about finishing the presidential race.

Sticking to Isko

His party, Aksyon Demokratiko, is backing Moreno on his controversial call.

“I think Mayor Isko was just giving them [Robredo camp and supporters] a dose of their own medicine,” party chairman Ernest Ramel told Rappler on Monday.

“Now that they had it, they are now calling it misogynist, sexist, and unfair but when they were the ones calling for it, it was a ‘supreme sacrifice’ and ‘para sa bayan’ (for the country),” he added.

Bobit Roco, son of Aksyon founder Raul Roco, chimed in.

“It was mirroring Leni’s move. I don’t know why the mirror is upsetting them,” he told Rappler.

For Moreno and his team, Robredo and her supporters started it with their #WithdrawIsko and vicious group chat predictions that he would withdraw on Labor Day in exchange for the interior and local government portfolio in Robredo’s cabinet. (READ: The making of Isko’s pro-Duterte strategy)

When Rappler pointed out to Moreno during a media interview on Monday that Robredo herself had never asked him to withdraw herself, he said he “wasn’t born yesterday.”

Asked if he was just speculating about Robredo’s role in the withdrawal calls, he only said, “We don’t speculate.”

Asked what he thinks of the negative reactions to the joint press conference, the Manila mayor said, “Sila-sila rin ‘yon (It’s just them saying that).”

Moreno continues to weave his narrative that this is a class war, that Robredo’s camp can get away with calling for his withdrawal because they are part of the “elite.”

He continues to say that he has bared Robredo’s being allegedly two-faced and that Filipinos can now see for themselves the “true character” of their candidates.

“The people heard the truth. This is the first time na narinig ng taongbayan ‘yung totoong karakter ng isang kandidato at ito hindi sinabi lang ng isang tao… kung gaano karumi maglaro sa halalan (the people heard about the real character of a candidate… how they play dirty during elections),” said the mayor.

But for many, especially Robredo’s passionate supporters, it was Moreno’s true character that was bared. 

The main question Moreno would want answered is if his ploy will succeed in attracting soft Marcos voters – those only choosing the dictator’s son as a protest vote against Robredo.

Like his “yellowtard” outburst back in October, this fresh spur-of-the-moment remark is an experiment to woo Duterte supporters who would do anything to shut Robredo out from Malacañang.

That was his gambit all along, to present himself, not as alternative to Robredo, but as an alternative to Marcos. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.