Filipino celebrities entering politics isn’t new. The country does have a track record of electing the likes of Joseph Estrada, a convicted plunderer and former president, so it comes as no surprise that other celebs have also tried running for office. But in a political arena full of political dynasties and lacking in leaders with clear political beliefs, what’s the real cost of voting for a celebrity? If a number of us are just trying to choose between lesser evils, how harmful could it be?
The rise of celebrity politicians
Before we unpack the reasons why we should be wary of celebrity aspirants, let’s talk about the political atmosphere that made these career pivots possible. Not that holding positions in office have stopped the likes of Senators Bong Revilla (who faced plunder and graft charges) and Manny Pacquiao (who has made multiple anti-LGBTQIA+ statements) from getting their entertainment industry checks.
Several studies have been published on the reasons why many Filipinos have favored celebrity candidates. A study in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies lists three main reasons: electoral laws and limited campaign periods that turn exposure into political capital, weak political parties that contribute to personality-based election, and parasocial relationships where celebrity candidates are treated as friends or family by voters.
Think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace looked into our country’s lack of strong political parties and its patronage-based democracy where “political power rests on the distribution of economic benefits to supporters.” The institute published a report to better understand the popularity of President Rodrigo Duterte and his war on drugs.
Carnegie Endowment wrote, “There is little or no partisan polarization in the Philippines. Parties are marginal players in Philippine politics. Only the small parties of the far left adhere to a well-defined ideology. All the largest so-called parties are instead the electoral vehicles of oligarchic clans. The Nacionalista Party is the vehicle of Manuel Villar, the National Unity Party that of Enrique Razon, and the Nationalist People’s Coalition that of Eduardo Cojuangco Junior… Duterte’s party, the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan, better known as PDP-Laban, is similarly a personalistic vehicle, whose primary appeal to voters is Duterte himself.”
In this context, it makes a bit of sense why a number of Filipinos look for candidates who have achieved celebrification and are perceived to have higher chances of shaking up the status quo.
The cost of inexperienced leaders and popularity politics
It would be unfair to say that all celebrities are bad eggs, but they have to make an effort to prove that they are deserving of the vote. Ateneo School of Government graduate Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto is an example of a politician from a celebrity family whose good governance has been widely recognized. Sotto didn’t use his family’s prominence to win his landslide victory in 2019. Sotto said, “We successfully had an issue-based campaign. I refuse to make it about the glitz and glamour. I refuse to make it a show.” He added that it was important for him to clearly provide voters information about his agenda in order to engage them in participatory decision-making.
How do we become a nation of informed and empowered voters? It’s difficult not to feel disenfranchised when the candidates are often from the same rich families that have been in power for decades, and perhaps even a century. If a number of voters only feel hopeful for recognizable but new candidates such as celebrities, we need to acknowledge that their voting behavior doesn’t just hinge on popularity. They’re not “bobotantes.” We just have different candidates who pique our political imaginations.
How do we simultaneously strengthen democracy and align our expectations from politicians? How do we address our country’s reputation of being knee-deep in popularity politics on the side of voters and candidates alike? By advocating for better political literacy in basic education, Filipinos of all backgrounds can have a better grasp of what we can demand from political leaders and the steps we can take towards social justice. When scrutinizing credentials, a background in policymaking and a heart for service should be the bare minimum for any candidate. For those lacking the qualifications we want to see in a leader, we should question why they are entering the political arena. Running for politics isn’t the only way to enact change and it shouldn’t be seen as a lucrative or legacy-making endeavor.
It goes without saying that our leaders have a hand at legislation and economic growth. Having good leaders can inspire a new generation of lawmakers committed to radical changes that raise the quality of living for everyday Filipinos.
“The lack of experience, corruption and nepotism in the Philippine political scene would likely worsen instability and underpin the underperformance of the country’s ailing economy,” said research firm Capital Economics in a study. “Name recognition doesn’t correlate with skill in governing,” the firm added as it mentioned our country’s continuing struggle to recover from COVID-19.
We can’t go on living with this state of politics.