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 so moved by the flashmob, she shared a clip on 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. But beginning in the last election in 2016, the cross-over between showbiz and politics has reached a new level, says Anna Pertierra, an anthropologist at the University of Technology Sydney, who has previously studied media culture in the Philippines.
Recent history shows a strong link between celebrity status and election victory: five sitting senators (out of 24) enjoy some sort of fame outside of politics, including world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, who is also running for president. “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 is currently no. 3 in the polls behind Marcos and Robredo, with 8% support.
On the flip side, politicians also sell themselves as celebrities. 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. Mass appeal is a tried-and-tested formula in the national polls to this day. In one campaign appearance, senate candidate Salvador Panelo, a longtime political adviser who enjoys the support of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, serenaded his supporters with a popular Filipino ballad. Former Duterte spokesperson and top-flight lawyer Harry Roque, also campaigning for senate, did a choreographed dance routine to his own campaign jingle.
Bongbong Marcos, who leads the pack of presidential contenders with a commanding 56% in polls, is capitalizing on star-power in a different 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 the search for star-like qualities in Philippine politics? Pertierra says one factor was how television culture in the Philippines took off in 1986 after the broadcast networks were freed from government control following the ouster of Marcos Sr.
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 2022 senate candidates have action star backgrounds.) Pertierra says that acting tough wins voter support, even in the absence of policy substance.
U.S. President Donald Trump deployed reality TV tactics in the White House, and Filipino politicians often call on tropes from primetime dramas to keep people talking about them. Just as fans of a teleserye (Philippine dramas influenced by Mexican telenovelas) talk about bombshell revelations over dinner, families and neighbors often discuss televised senate hearings, including even trivial findings.
Take the case of detained Duterte critic and senator Leila de Lima, whose drug trafficking hearings focused on her affair with her driver, including a reported sex tape. Pertierra says political scandals and episodic dramas both occupy a fantasy world interesting for voters: distant, but still exciting enough to follow for gossip. “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.
However, not everyone is dazzled by political star-power. Janet Baheracion, a 53-year-old housekeeper, says she will not vote for anyone of celebrity status. “It just doesn’t seem like they’re serious,” she says.
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