How Philippine Elections Became All About Entertainment

Some 130,000 people flooded a street in the central business district of Pasig, a city just outside the Philippine capital Manila, last month to sing Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” in support of Leni Robredo, the Philippines vice president, who is running for the top job this year. (Grande was moved so much by the flashmob that she posted a clip to her Instagram.

Robredo was looking for a bump; public opinion polls have her trailing frontrunner Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. by 32 points in the May 9 presidential election. In an effort to turn the tide, she organized a daylong concert—with Filipino pop bands like The Itchyworms, and actors as headliners.

Since the 1986 People Power Movement that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos—Bongbong’s father—elections in the Philippines have been heavy on the entertainment factor. Anna Pertierra is an Anna Pertierra anthropologist from the University of Technology Sydney who previously researched media culture in the Philippines.

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A strong correlation exists between fame and victory in elections. Five of 24 senators are currently sitting, with Manny Pacquiao being one of them. “The sheer number of people doing it suggests now that it must be an established career path that many are aware of once they develop their media or showbiz success,” Pertierra tells TIME.

At least 36 Filipino celebrities are running for public office in the Southeast Asian nation of 110 million—from city council member to president, according to a tally by Rappler. Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, Manila’s mayor and a presidential contender, is a former TV star, who previously also appeared in steamy romance films. He currently ranks no. He is currently ranked 3rd in the polls, behind Robredo and Marcos with 8% support.

The flip side is that politicians can be seen as stars. Between the 1960s and the late 1980s, the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos leveraged First Lady Imelda Marcos—a pageant queen and glamorous socialite—to boost his public appeal. The mass appeal strategy is still a popular one in national elections. Salvador Panelo, the senatorial candidate and a political adviser, performed one of his campaign performances. He sang a Filipino tune to his supporters. Harry Roque, a former Duterte spokesperson who is also running for the Senate, choreographed his dance routine using his campaign tune.

Bongbong Marcos is a leading presidential candidate with 56% of the vote. He’s also leveraging star power in a unique way. His campaign has been light on policy pronouncements, and he’s skipped all televised debates. Instead, he has leaned heavily on his famous (in some quarters, infamous) family’s name. He has portrayed his father’s authoritarian regime as stable and prosperous—despite documented human rights abuses and the looting of public coffers.

Why is there a search for superstar-like characteristics in Philippine politics Pertierra explains that one reason television culture flourished in the Philippines was the liberation of broadcast networks from the government’s control in 1986.

Action stars seem to have a particular grip on Filipinos’ political imagination: Duterte was branded “Duterte Harry”—a reference to the brutal 1970s detective played by Clint Eastwood. His former top cop became a senator after earning the nickname “Bato” (The Rock). Three of the three 2022 senator candidates are action stars. Pertierra claims that even if there is no policy substance, being tough can win voter support.

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Trump used reality TV techniques in his White House. Filipino politicians frequently use tropes of primetime dramas as a way to get people talking about them. As fans of the a Teleserye Mexican influence on Philippine dramas TelenovelasFamilies and neighbours often talk over dinner about the bombshell revelations.

Consider Leila de Lima who was detained as a Duterte critic. Her drug trafficking hearings were focused on her alleged affair and sex tape. Pertierra states that political scandals, as well as episodic dramas, both exist in a fantasy universe appealing to voters. “They’re not people that you’re necessarily expecting to directly impact your everyday life,” Pertierra says.

Ultimately, it’s about finding some way to break through the noise of the Philippines’ many social ills, including poverty and corruption. “Many voters may not really feel like a traditional politician is going to solve the problems that they feel that they’re experiencing,” says Pertierra.

Not everyone can be dazzled and enthralled by the political power of celebrities. Janet Baheracion is a housekeeper aged 53 who says she will not vote in celebrity candidates. “It just doesn’t seem like they’re serious,” she says.

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