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POLITICS AMONG THE STARS
But fame does not guarantee election victories

By Antonio Lopez and
Wilhelmina Paras / Manila
Asiaweek, May 8, 1998


THE WEDDING OF ACTORS Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. and Lani Mercado was a lavish affair. The bride arrived in a Spanish-era horse-drawn carriage. The groom rode a white horse and sported a grand general's uniform, recalling one worn by Emilio Aguinaldo when he founded the Philippine republic. But while the mood may have evoked the nation's June 12, 1898, birth, the date chosen for the nuptials, March 25, had a more immediate significance: the deadline for candidates to register for local elections was the next day. The wedding was a perfect, star-studded kickoff to Revilla's bid to become governor of Cavite province. "You can call it political gimmickry," said an actor-friend, "but the wedding was long overdue."

Most political campaigns benefit from a spritz of showbiz glamour, but the Revilla-Mercado "centennial union" showed how central the celebrity factor has become to the Philippines' political calculus this year. At the wedding a host of top politicians like Fidel Ramos and Alfredo Lim represented a political casting coup for the newlyweds. For many guests, it was a case of see
and be seen - the melding of politics and entertainment in the name of love. What a script. It is no different at the ballot box. At this point, polls favor celluloid hero Joseph Estrada to take top billing, beating challengers that include a television talk show host. A former television news presenter is the running mate of one-time defense minister Renato de Villa. Six leading senatorial
candidates are either former movie stars or media personalities, including incumbents Vicente "Tito" Sotto and Ramon Revilla Sr. Altogether, at least 60 declared candidates in various elections are counting on celebrity to boost their prospects. "It's a manifestation of the power of the media," says Senator Orlando Mercado, Estrada's campaign manager and himself a
well-known broadcaster. "Film is a very powerful medium."

Consequently, even entrenched politicians look for ways to boost their star profile. Lim had three autobiographical films made before launching his bid for the Manila mayorship in 1992. Last year, Ruben Torres, Ramos's executive secretary, pulled the same stunt when he ran for senator. Carefully-timed marriages are common. Revilla and Mercado lived together for 12 years
before tying the knot on the eve of the campaign kickoff. In 1995 the son of a career politician wed a famous actress and ran his election campaign under the billing "Mr. Vilma Santos." Santos, a wildly popular actress for decades, is herself now running for mayor of Lipa City.

Critics pan such efforts to turn stardom into political success. "It's a manifestation of lack of choice," says Vladimir Cabigao, leader of the Alliance for Youth Solidarity. "Because voters do not know the other candidates they prefer the more popular ones." Indeed, Filipinos lap up election politics as much for their entertainment value as anything. Intelligent discussion of
important issues seems rare.

Of even greater concern is whether stars are qualified. Revilla Sr. is likely to be re-elected senator despite famously distributing scripts to colleagues in advance of his legislative addresses which list what questions to ask and in what sequence - he needs to keep his responses in order. Is that so terrible? Celebrities "are as qualified as any member of a profession like law, medicine or
management," says Senator Freddie Webb, himself a basketball legend. Sotto, the incumbent senator who was once a film and television comedian, adds: "There are far more lawyers, engineers and doctors in politics than stars."

While celebrities have the advantage of popularity and instant name recall, fame is not a sure ticket to electoral success. "Only about a third of movie people who seek election to public office make it," says Sotto. Elaine Cuneta, mother of megastar singer Sharon, lost to a political pro in her 1995 congressional bid. That was the same year bankable action star Robin Padilla was
out-polled by a veteran politician despite the additional boost of an endorsement from Ramos. Padilla later was arrested and jailed for three years on a charge of weapons possession. "People still look for [on-the-job] performance," volunteers Quezon City mayor Ismael Mathay.

Obviously, the political link between entertainment and politics is not new in the Philippines. But it is perhaps more important than ever this year with the strong presidential candidacy of Estrada, a five-time winner of the Philippines' best-actor award. In that sense, Revilla and Mercado, the couple who wed the day before political campaigns kicked off, were really just riding the
wave with their nuptials. The younger Revilla, in fact, looks set to win big. It all gives new meaning to the old phrase "political theater."

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