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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

Celebrity versus policy in Philippine elections

The 2016 Philippine elections drew a record turnout at polling stations, with 82 per cent of the 54 million registered voters casting a ballot. This year, social media led to the greater scrutinisation of candidates but celebrity politicians remained popular.
Boxing icon Manny Pacquiao is mobbed by supporters during his campaign in Calamba town, Laguna province. Ted Aljibe / AFP
Boxing icon Manny Pacquiao is mobbed by supporters during his campaign in Calamba town, Laguna province. Ted Aljibe / AFP

The Philippine elections have been lauded as the most peaceful in the country’s history. There was a record turnout at polling stations, with 82 per cent of the 54 million registered voters casting a ballot. But the elections also signalled a turning point in the maturity of the system – and the voters.

Notably, the country held its first presidential debate in more than two decades, allowing voters to scrutinise candidates on issues and platforms. Social media also played a big role: on Facebook and Twitter, voters debated with each other and investigated facts and figures, allowing them to focus on what truly mattered.

The Philippine polls have always been a contest over popularity first and policy second, resulting in a carnivalesque season galvanised not only by the contenders’ posturing and hand-shaking, but also by their song-and-dance performances on stages across the country. This year, while the system remained heavily based on personality, there was less musical pageantry to assault the public’s senses.

Celebrity politicians, however, remained popular: Filipinos adore their local celebrities so much, they often elect them for public office. One of them, Joseph Estrada, was even elected president in 1998. In this year’s elections, there were about 30 actors and musicians who ran for posts. Two of them, comic and television presenter Vicente Sotto III and boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, won seats in the Senate. Richard Gomez, one of the country’s most popular actors, triumphed as mayor of Ormoc, while veteran actress Vilma Santos – known as the “Star for all Seasons” – is the new congresswoman of Batangas.

James Gabrillo is a former arts editor at The National and a PhD candidate at the Unversity of Cambridge studying cultural spectacle in the Philippines.

Updated: May 17, 2016 04:00 AM

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