A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Elections As Showbiz

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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/25 April) – Writing from Kiev in the Ukraine, Simon Shuster (whose article for Time magazine appeared in the 8 April 2019 issue) wrote about the current Presidential elections in that country. Referring to the fact that the frontrunner among those running for the office is the country’s famous comedian – Volodymyr Zelensky – Shuster posits: “No other politician (except perhaps the former reality-TV star who occupies the Oval Office) has provided a truer test of the theory that politics in our age is just a form of show business.”

Perhaps we need to inform Shuster that this theory has been working in the Philippines already for a long time. What he wrote in regard to Ukraine’s electoral exercise might as well refer to our own brand of conducting elections. As what is happening now in the run-up to the May 2019 elections, one can refer to this exercise as a form of show business. Just take a pause and reflect on who are running for the various offices and what they do to get the voters’ nod. Either the candidates are from showbiz or they are adopting the showbiz tactics that effectively draw viewers’ attention.

For about four decades now, those from showbiz – movie and TV stars, athletes and other celebrities made famous by popular media – have increasingly made their presence as candidates for electoral positions from local to congressional to national levels. First there was the matinee idol of the 1940s-50s Rogelio dela Rosa followed by the likes of Erap Estrada and Fernando Poe Jr. who both run for the Presidency. As everyone knows, Estrada won but was booted out of office only to return later as Mayor of Manila. Many believe that Poe should have won but his camp did not have the efficient machinery that Macapagal-Arroyo was able to set up which guaranteed her winning that hotly contested elections.

Action stars seem to have the edge when it comes to shifting from movies/TV to the Senate. From Estrada and Poe, we now have the likes of Lito Lapid, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla.  Despite their lackluster performance as Senators and cases of corruption (for Estrada and Revilla), the current survey shows they are bound to win again in this year’s elections. Even the likes of Gen. Bato and Bong Go know the power of media, which was why they found ways to have the dramatization of their lives made into a movie or TV film. (Remember Marcos’ film Iginuhit ng Tadhana? That movie was one reason he won when he run for the Presidency). But there is also the comedian, Tito Sotto who is now Senate President.

In past and present elections other movie/TV stars have successfully used their popularity to win seats as Congresspersons, Governors or Mayors. The list is quite long as it includes: Loren Legarda, Noli de Castro, Vilma Santos, Richard Gomez, Lucy Torres, Herbert Bautista, Lani Mercado, Isko Moreno and many others. There are also those who tried their luck and ended up losing or being charged with cases in court including: Nora Aunor, Rudy Fernandez, Alma Moreno, Rhoderick Paulate, Edu Manzano, Ronnie Ricketts, Cesar Montano and others. Among those in the field of sports, there are politicians like Manny Pacquiao.

There is also some kind of magic in the family name of such famous personalities, as their offspring and other relatives capitalize on such names. Estrada/Ejercito is one example. Grace Poe’s popularity is linked to the father. In many instances, such families morph into political dynasties. Sons and daughters follow their parents’ footsteps. This list is getting longer every time there is an election. Such family dynasties include those of the Villars, Binays, Cayetanos, Pimentels, and so many others.

There also seems to be a connection between showbiz and the dramas involving political dynasties. Quite a few of the more popular teleseryes show the melodramatic incidents in the life of political families with its twists and turns. What is happening to the Binay family in terms of who the patriarch will support among siblings running for the same office has the same dramatic content as teleseryes. Same with the continuing melodrama involving the Estrada/Ejercito siblings, which tangentially also involve the wife and mistress. The earlier conflict between Congressmen Alvarez and Floriendo which erupted in Congress, provoked by the catfight between their mistresses, was pure showbiz. This dramatic confrontation ended with the latter’s fall from grace as Speaker of the House.

But nothing beats the Dutertes in the contemporary political landscape. Here is a political dynasty whose members act in a way that not even the most imaginative scriptwriter could fictionalize. All three children are now running for public offices, including the youngest son who at one time showed no interest at all in engaging in politics. The daughter has turned into a major political force and has been tagged as the father’s successor in Malacanang. The middle child – despite the alleged link to drugs – is running unopposed and will soon be in Congress. There is even an in-law that is also getting into local politics.

So what brings about this phenomenon of “politics being a form of show business?” One cannot deny that one factor why a candidate gets elected is name recall. And celebrities have an edge over those whose faces do not appear on any screen – whether that of TVs, cinemas, social media’s gadgets and even tarpaulins advertising products. Mass media has always been an instrument to tap if a candidate wants exposure; the advent of social media has made that need even more urgent. Which is why politicians and their parties have employed trolls for purposes of manipulating facts or popularizing fake news.

In the post-modern era, segments of our population can easily be mesmerized by those they idolize as media’s gaze is on them. There seems to be a need to identify with those who have power which no longer demands strong adherence to moral values such as integrity, honesty and ethical behavior in society. Most of us no longer demand of our politicians the high standards of the likes of the Claro Rectos, Jose Dioknos and Lorenzo Tanadas.  Many of us do not even care if there are quality debates among the candidates where they are able to articulate their visions for the betterment of this country and its people.

Sad to say, that the “kababawan” that exemplifies showbiz (for we have to admit that there are but a few exceptions to films/TV shows that have depth) makes our politics also shallow. And where showbiz has nothing substantial to contribute to a radical transformation of the ills of Philippine society then it follows there is little hope we can place on the kind of politics we have in our country today.

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations” and two books on Davao history launched in December 2015. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]

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