IF Erap can be President, why can’t I be a city councilor, or a mayor—or even a congressman or senator?

No one has done a survey on it. But anecdotal evidence suggests that almost every celebrity in this country—its actors, singers, TV anchors, and at least one boxer—have at one time or another considered running for public office, and what’s more, have made good on that threat.

At the back of their minds is the example of Joseph Estrada, who after all handily won the Presidency of the Republic in 1998. He just as quickly lost it in 2001 through direct citizen action, but the fact still remains that he did win the highest elective post in the land on the strength, it seems, of little else than his movie star status.

Since he became President, Estrada has been the pole star of celebritydom, seemingly the one shining example of media power–of the power of the movies particularly. An action star during the golden age of Filipino movies, Estrada was more popular than dengue. It’s easy enough to conclude from Estrada’s example that popularity solely defined in terms of media presence and name recall is the one sure path to winning elections. Every politician therefore thinks it to his advantage to be associated with some celebrity or the other, whether as friend and associate, compadre or cohort.

Some cultivate liaisons with the nearest celebrity; others even marry one. But it doesn’t always work, as one outstanding example proved in the contest for the Vice Presidency in 2010, while previous to that some celebrities including Manny Pacquiao had been soundly defeated in the polls, in some cases even in such lowly contests as for city councilor.

Those defeats have since been interpreted as indications of electorate discernment and maturity– as signs of, finally, the voters’ developing enough of a capacity to test candidates for leadership qualities and even intelligence instead of voting for the candidate who can sing or dance best. Are they indeed, or were the celebrities involved just not popular enough—or did not quite meet electorate expectations?

In any event, the defeat at the polls of some of their brethren has resulted in some celebrity candidates’ adopting the tone and language of ordinary, meaning run-of-the-mill, politicians. They speak in English when interviewed, outline programs of government, or at least try to; they identify the problems they’d like to address once in office, whether as senator, congressman, mayor or councilor. Would- be candidate for congress Aga Mulach took this tack after his oath-taking as a member of the Liberal Party last week, carrying on as if he were a be-degree’d and pedigreed politico who sounded suspiciously like one of the lawyers Congress has a surfeit of.

Big mistake. It’s not how like garden- variety politicians they are, but how different, that makes celebrities win elections– and it’s not because they’re more photogenic, although that does count– or sound better when they speak. What sets them apart is what makes them the same—not as every other politician, but as the mass of the electorate. The Estrada mumble, for example, and his disdain for the English language, resonate among a mass audience that understands how difficult it is to articulate both thought and feeling even in one’s own tongue, and which disdains the titles and pretensions of those who speak in foreign accents.

But the mass appeal of every matinee idol this country has ever produced (think Joseph Estrada; think Fernando Poe Jr.) is more firmly based on how much the characters he plays –whether Asyong Salonga or Ang Panday—have managed to give voice to mass aspirations for a world of justice in which the evil are punished and the righteous rewarded. It’s a world unlike the one the mass audience knows, where no good deed goes unpunished, crime pays, and every crook whether porch climber or shady politician prospers. And it is exactly that world—the very opposite of what they live in and have to live with—that, once realized onscreen, is instantly recognizable among such basic classes as workers and farmers that have known injustice for most of their lives.

Inevitable that the members of the mass audience should bring to their role as the electorate approval of those who seem able to satisfy their yearning for leaders who can speak for them because they are them. When he or she votes for, say, Joseph Estrada, the voter whose only involvement in the political process is to cast his or her vote also casts a protest, and condemns a political system that calls itself democratic but denies him or her a voice in it.

As has been suggested often, such a choice is also a rejection of the titled, the pedigreed and the be-degree’d—most of them unremitting disappointments, and alien to the voter marginalized by a political system that has become the sole domain of a few—in favor of the fighter for justice and defender of the weak he so approves of onscreen. The flaw fatal in this process is the mass audience/electorate’s confusing the actor for his screen persona, which, for its studied cultivation even offscreen, is too often only an act, after all.

The 2013 elections, during which a number of celebrities will run for, among other posts, the Senate, should be, among others, not only another opportunity to discover whether the electorate has discovered its error of identifying the actor with the role. It should also be the occasion to discover how much the celebrity-candidate has understood what it is in celebrity status that so fascinates the mass of the electorate– the millions who, theoretically at least, primarily decide, if not the stability of thrones, at least the quality and capacity to govern of those who claim to represent and speak for them.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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