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Philippine Election Campaign Starts; Entertainment Industry Threatened

February 17, 2010

By Maria Isabel T. Buenaobra, Steven Rood

It’s SHOWTIME!  In the Philippines, politics is entertainment and elections are fiestas. This proved to be true once again with the start of the official campaign season on February 9.

At campaign kick-offs in various parts of the country, presidential candidates were joined with celebrities, singers, and dancers at the campaign sorties. Manny Villar of the Nationalista Party had skimpily-clad dancers gyrating on the stage; Noynoy Aquino had Coco Martin (respected actor and current heartthrob of stage and screen) join his motorcade in Tarlac; administration candidate Gilbert Teodoro has actor Eduardo Manzano as vice-presidential candidate; and, of course, ex-President Joseph Estrada started his career as a well-known film actor himself, became president, returned to acting, and is now running for president again.

Presidential campaign posters, such as this one for candidate Gilberto "G1BO" Teodoro, are ubiquitous during election season in the Philippines.

Presidential campaign posters, such as this one for candidate Gilberto "G1BO" Teodoro, are ubiquitous during election season in the Philippines.

With rumors of millions of pesos being paid to celebrity endorsers and (factual and not rumored) groceries, cash, and actual houses given as prizes by the Villar camp in game shows on major TV networks, it is no wonder that the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC), taking a cue from the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV is a major pollwatch group and COMELEC citizens’ arm), decided to require celebrity endorsers, broadcasters, and columnists to resign or go on leave from their media outfits for the duration of the May election campaigns. This was to enforce a neglected provision of the 2001 Fair Elections Act that reads:

“Any mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter, on-air correspondent, or personality who is a candidate for any elective public office or is a campaign volunteer for or employed or retained in any capacity by any candidate or political party shall be deemed resigned, if so required by [his/her] employer, or shall take a leave of absence from his/her work as such during the campaign period.”

COMELEC’s ruling was quickly modified less than a week after its issuance. The COMELEC threat was greeted by cries of protest not only by celebrities, but also by candidates and political parties. Kris Aquino, sister of presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino, made a statement that she was willing to be thrown in jail for not following the COMELEC ruling. After all, she and her family in fact are used to the jail scenario, having experienced Corazon Aquino’s then husband and former Senator Ninoy Aquino being thrown into jail by the Marcoses during Martial Law. But this country is not under Martial Law today, and why single out celebrities?  Kris Aquino has a daily entertainment wrap-up show, co-hosts the most highly-rated celebrity weekly show, and appears nightly in a tele-series. Entertainers ask, If Oprah did it for Obama, why can’t they?

An election campaign poster covers the side of building in Manila.

An election campaign poster covers the side of building in Manila.

Sometimes the main threat to the Philippine entertainment industry seems to be that the politicians themselves become the entertainers, crowding out the competition. After all, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, a highly-trained lawyer, judge, and public servant, said “I was also the entertainer, candidate, wrestler, singer, and dancer.”

Unfortunately for many of those aspiring to public office, their artistic talents are insufficient to give them a day job should they lose the elections – professional entertainers need not fear.

With the howl of protest by the entertainment industry, on February 15 the COMELEC said that it was leaving it up to media outfits if they want their stars, broadcasters, or columnists who endorse candidates to take time off during the election season. However, media personalities should make sure that they are not using their shows to campaign for a candidate. With the backtracking of COMELEC, celebrity endorsers could heave a sigh of relief, for now.

It is debatable whether celebrity itself does in fact influence voting preferences. In the last elections, celebrities and stars who ran for the Senate and other positions in fact lost the elections because the public did not see them as fit to run for public office. Manny Pacquiao, one of the greatest boxers in the world, was knocked out in the 2007 congressional race in General Santos City by a female politician who had more political experience than he did. This has not deterred him from trying again in 2010, fitting campaigning in between boxing matches, somewhat to the dismay of his boxing fans.

Talented actor Cesar Montano, an administration candidate at the time, lost in the nationwide senatorial race. He is currently running for governor in his home province of Bohol. In fact, only celebrities who had actual political experience won in contested positions. So stardom is not in fact a shoo-in for any position in Philippine politics. Celebrities help draw crowds at campaign sorties, but do not necessarily draw votes.

And yet, what made the PPCRV protest so loudly, with the COMELEC seconding the motion, is the fact that the celebrity endorser issue came in the wake of public concern about the scandalous budget for election advertisements. Per actual count by media experts, advertisements by presidential candidates had reached 4 billion pesos (nearly $87 million) before the campaign started (the campaign limit for a presidential candidate is just 500 million, or nearly $11 million, within the campaign period that just started). Elections are an income-generating project not only for advertising agencies, but for celebrity endorsers as well.

So, the fiesta atmosphere continues. Hopefully, in between the noontime shows with prizes galore, the celebrity-crowded political rallies, and the advertising campaigns, some pertinent issues will be discussed. But issues can be tackled another time. For now, it’s showtime!

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s Director of Programs in the Philippines and  Steven Rood is the Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Good Governance
Related topics: Elections


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