The Philippines

Hail to 'Da King'

A Fernando Poe Jr. supporter
"Politically Immature?" A Fernando Poe Jr. supporter at a Jan. 2 rally in Manila (Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP-Getty Images).

Could the Actors Guild of the Philippines be the new political party to watch in Manila? Three years after actor-turned-president Joseph Estrada was thrown out of office, Filipino voters are poised to elect another movie star this May. 

Surveys show Fernando Poe Jr., “Da King” of the Filipino box office, as the front-runner even though, critics say, he’s a high-school dropout with no political experience. Poe’s candidacy on behalf of a three-party coalition has drawn comparisons to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was elected California governor last year.

Known as FPJ to his many fans, the 64-year-old actor has enjoyed enormous popularity ever since he first appeared, at age 15, in Anak ni Palaris (Son of Palaris). In more than 280 subsequent movies, he has played roles that cast him as “champion of the weak, savior of the poor, and hope of the desperate,” according to Newsbreak magazine (Dec. 22). But with the Philippines facing a number of serious problems—including 20-percent unemployment, rampant corruption, and Muslim secessionist movements on the islands of Mindanao and Jolo—many are asking whether an aging movie star is really the best person for the job over the other leading candidates with real-world experience, such as former Senator Raul Roco and the incumbent president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. 

“FPJ’s qualifications are mostly imagined—scripted, choreographed, lighted, and directed to make him larger and more perfect than life, but his fans don’t care,” wrote Paulynn P. Sicam in CyberDyaryo (Dec. 5). “Perhaps they feel that our traditional leaders have failed them. Seventeen years after the glorious people power revolution [which ended the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos] with its promise of equal justice and equal opportunity for all, our people have gained little from the return of democracy.”

Although Poe’s candidacy has caused much consternation in the local press, Filipinos have been electing show-business types for decades. Numerous TV talk-show hosts, comedians, matinee idols, and former basketball stars have used their fame as a springboard to such elected posts as mayor, governor, and members of Congress. “Many Filipinos are, to put it nicely, politically immature,” writes Rick M. Abcede in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Jan. 9).

In 1998, Estrada, a movie star almost as popular as Poe, was elected president, only to be ousted halfway through his term by a popular uprising sparked by a corruption scandal. Though he’s now being tried on related charges, some believe Estrada is behind the candidacy of his friend. Yet in January, Poe stunned critics and supporters alike by picking an anti-Estrada senator as his running mate—a move that CyberDyaryo commentator Sicam called “the latest dip in the roller-coaster ride through the loop of politics without values” (Jan. 5).

While Poe leads in the polls now, anything is possible. According to the Manila Standard (Jan. 7), even fortune-tellers are flip-flopping on the possible outcome. But no matter who’s elected, the problems facing the nation remain the same—a falling peso,  rising birthrates, and poverty.  “What matters,” writes Alejandro Lichauco in Today (Jan. 7), “is the awakening of the masses whose hunger will remain even after the elections.”