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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 December, 2003, 09:47 GMT
Philippines politics hooked on the movies

Tim Luard
BBC News Online

An actor known as the Philippines' answer to John Wayne is leading the race for president in a country where politics has come to draw much of its inspiration from the silver screen.

But the last film-star presidency had a far from happy ending, and some are wondering if they are just watching a re-run of an old B-movie.

Fernando Poe Jr was adopted on Wednesday by a coalition of opposition parties to stand in the presidential election next May.

It chose him because of "his patriotism and humanity... his behaviour as a family man... and his success in the movie industry," the coalition said.

Fernando Poe, Jr
FPJ is known for playing the quiet hero in 50 years of action movies

Opinion polls put the 64-year-old actor well ahead of incumbent President Gloria Arroyo and the other two registered candidates.

Mr Poe - known as "Da King" or simply FPJ - dropped out of school, has no political experience or party membership and has yet to announce his campaign platform.

He is an old friend of former President Joseph Estrada - another actor-turned-politician who was forced from power after a military-backed revolt in 2001, and is now on trial for corruption.

Both men have huge followings among poorer Filipinos, who may feel they know them intimately after seeing them in film careers that go back for many decades.

Colourful lifestyle

Those who have a fuzzy view of the world turn to cartoon characters
Manuel Quezon, political columnist
Over more than 50 years of movie-making, Fernando Poe Junior is best known for playing the quiet hero and underdog, who always does the right thing and only reaches for his gun when pushed too far.

Joseph Estrada played louder, more swaggering characters on screen and was famed in real life for his numerous mistresses and fondness for drinking and gambling.

When a movie star is running for president, it is often his on-screen persona that matters most.

"Those who have a fuzzy view of the world turn to cartoon characters," says Manuel Quezon, political columnist and grandson of the country's first president.

"The Philippines is one of those Third World countries where even if you don't have a TV or radio, you can still afford to go to the movies," he told BBC News Online.

In a country where political leaders tend to come across as remote and corrupt, he believes it is understandable that people look hopefully towards the familiar and attractive faces they see on their local cinema screens.

The fondness for electing down-to-earth characters from the movies is a reaction to the Marcos era, he says.

During his rule from 1965 to 1986, Ferdinand Marcos suspended parliament, arrested opposition politicians and, together with his wife Imelda, amassed a huge personal fortune.

"Having experienced the Marcos dictatorship - when a clever, crooked lawyer robbed the country blind and killed a lot of people, you cannot blame people now for wanting to be ruled by someone who is the opposite of clever," said Mr Quezon.

Singing and dancing

Gloria Arroyo
Polls show President Arroyo well behind the man known as "Da King"
The Marcoses may also have played a more direct role in introducing the concept of politics as entertainment.

They were famous for their love of showbiz and glamour - and specialised in singing their own duets.

Today's politicians have carried on this "vaudeville" trend, often preferring when they appear on stage to perform dances or songs rather than give speeches.

But almost three years after the fall of president Estrada, some Filipinos worry that there is something much more sinister behind the sudden appearance of his old drinking buddy as the latest candidate for president.

"My worry is that the people around Fernando Poe Jr are from the same political line that goes back not just to Estrada but all the way to the Marcos period," said Joel Rocamura of the Institute for Popular Democracy.

"Seventeen years after the end of the Marcos dictatorship, it's time we got rid of all the crooked elements of that era".

He believes much of the problem lies in the lack of what he calls real political parties in the Philippines. President Arroyo is a member of three different parties, he points out.

"Clearly the opposition parties think FPJ can win. But whether he is capable of being president is another matter.

"When you don't have real political parties with real political programmes, voters have no basis for making decisions.

"And when you have a candidate who has never run for public office - not even as a dogcatcher - you have no basis for judging him either".

Unless, of course, you resort to the silver screen - and that old image you have of him as a fearless righter of wrongs in a hundred all-action movies.

Arroyo U-turn on re-election
04 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Estrada's fall from hero to villain
30 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Gloria Arroyo
28 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: The Philippines
05 Nov 03  |  Country profiles

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