POLITICS AMONG THE STARS
But fame does not guarantee election
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."