The Rise and Fall of a Politician Star: Joseph Estrada, Philippine Politics and Cinema (draft conference essay)

by rolandotolentino

The Rise and Fall of a Politician Star: Joseph Estrada, Philippine Politics and Cinema

Politician stars are on the rise in the Philippines. Politics and show business, after all, are symbiotically related. Politics borrow from show business. Political aspirants learn to sing and dance, are packaged in production numbers, guests stars in campaign rallies. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos would sing duets, dance the waltz, guest famous stars to draw in and sustain crowds. Show business also wants to please politics of the status quo. Political personalities become guests of honor in official show business functions.

Stars and politicians utilize their bodies as spectacle. Filmic and political narratives are centered on the main protagonists. In the mode of production of studio system in stars and traditional politics in politicians, the main protagonists dictate the process of production. Stars would be highlighted in film stories, cinematography, editing and direction. Politicians, most especially the president, would reinvent legacies through particular nation-building thrusts: Marcos’ New Society that sought a modern nation steeped in traditional moral values or Fidel Ramos’ Philippines 2000 that sought to propel the nation to middle-phased developed status. With constant visibility and centered-ness, stars and politicians reach an iconic status, corresponding to branded stories or commodities that tell specific stories.

Politician stars, therefore, twice embody the spectacle—being able to use their bodies as central to two spheres of reality. For stars, the transformation begins with show businesses being honed for political purposes. For politicians, it is to rise above the rest and become the star politician, but nonetheless remaining primarily in the political field. Star politicians reinvent their star qualities for political gain. As stars, they already sway control over fantasies of image and representation and thus the shift to politics seem convenient through a retrofitting of the workings of the image on a similar mass-base. After all, audiences, while watching film narratives about middle-class positioning, are also being conditioned as citizens to aspire for middle-class recognition.

The masses’ relationship with politicians and stars presents a complex bind. On the one hand, if they choose the kind of politicians and stars, then they are to a large extent, swayed to do so because of the power of media and the political machinery. On the other hand, they are also discriminating in their popular choices made—not every film earns box-office returns or politicians win. For a time, the audience of film, mostly belonging to the middle to lower-income groups, were also the bulk of the voting public. In the case of the Philippines, the masses chose actor Joseph Estrada as the president in 1998 by the largest margin in presidential election history, in a kind of class-revenge on the ruling economic elites and middle-class. However, middle-class opinions and actions coalesced to depose him in 2001. Another actor and an Estrada friend, Fernando Poe, Jr. almost won the presidential elections in 2004. The masses, therefore, are not a homogenized lot but one steeped especially in class issues and struggle.

Since the 1950s, the Philippines has been electing movie stars to national positions. Matinee idol turned serious actor Rogelio de la Rosa, a dramatic star of romantic movies was the first movie star to be elected to the Philippine Senate in 1957. Prior to this victory, de la Rosa was already visible as a staunch supporter of President Ramon Magsaysay, helping “launch[…] various government projects to benefit he poor and the needy.”[1] He was supposedly urged by Magsaysay to run for public office to “giv[e] something back to the people who made him (de la Rosa).”[2] De la Rosa would later run for the presidency, only to withdraw to give way to a fellow Kapampangan politician, Diosdado Macapagal. From 1965 to 1983, he would become ambassador to Cambodia, Netherlands, Poland, and Bulgaria.

With Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial rule in 1972, the bicameral system was replaced with a rubberstamp parliamentary system. This meant that aspirants had to compete at the local level, an unappetizing prospect for movie stars of national prominence. Marcos chose to mobilize stars for political means—to attract crowds during campaigns and to publicize edifice projects. Politicians, like stars, were attracted to the Marcos couple as the opposition was disenfranchised during the dictatorship. Marcos would support the film industry, creating the Film Academy of the Philippines, comprised of the various artisan guilds, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines that provided for production incentives to worthy film projects, and appointed the head to the powerful censorship board. No other president in the history of the country was involved in the development of the local film industry, creating agencies and incentives, than Marcos.

Marcos knew the power of the medium of film. Earlier on, Marcos produced a film biography using the most popular stars for his first presidential campaign. He ran against Macapagal who also came up with a film biography to boost his reelection bid. Marcos would also use another film Iginuhit ng Tadhana (Written by Destiny, 1965) to campaign for a second term. The two Marcos film bios would be the only successful political films—commercial and election wise—as other film biographies in the post-Marcos period by senatorial and presidential aspirants would prove dismal, unhelpful for election bids. The post-Marcos period liberalized the political and economic scene. It conventionalized and intensified the election of movie and sports stars, and even television news hosts to national politics. Television stations were sequestered by the government, the largest of which, however, was returned to its pre-martial law owners. ABS-CBN would become the leading television station until after 2000, allowing two of its news anchors to become senators.

Joseph Estrada would play the election game of Marcos. He would hone his political skills by becoming a long-serving mayor of 17 years of a Manila suburb town allied to the Marcos administration, and in the post-Marcos period, becoming a senator for six years and whose fame rose because of his nationalist ideals, then vice-president for another six years more, with the biggest winning margin in Philippine electoral history until that time, and eventually president in 1998. Estrada represented the formula for movie actors entering the political field—middle-aged male heterosexual, and iconic in films dealing with being the hero of the masses. What later stars would innovate on, differing from Estrada’s trajectory, is the immediate targeting for national positions. It is only Loren Legarda, ABS-CBN news anchor, that would be the only female star to bridge show business and politics.

In the more recent time, it is only another action hero, Lito Lapid that played the local politics card, becoming governor of Pampanga, a province north of Manila, first before being voted as senator. Even Ramon Revilla, Sr., an iconic star of “Robin Hood” films would serve in the post-Marcos Senate for three terms, the maximum term load as stipulated in the Philippine Constitution. Cage star Robert Jaworski, known for his aggressive basketball play, serving as both lead player and coach to a prominent basketball team, and whose longevity is of mythical status, also geared for and won a senatorial post. Jaworski, like other stars basketball, billiard, bowling and boxing, games where Filipinos excelled, landed leading roles in one or two films during the height of their sports success.

Marcos and his cronies owned and controlled the various media during his administration. In the post-Marcos period, Manila’s preeminent position as the center of a liberalized and proliferating media was solidified. With 85 percent of Filipinos owning television, it replaced radio as the number one media form.[3] News anchors became household names as news shifted linguistically from English to Filipino-language reporting. Entertainment shows replaced news formatted shows, and news formatted shows highlighted showbiz content. The two major television stations developed into media conglomerates—allowing its own stable of stars to enter into music recording, magazines, film, television, cable through its various allied business involvement. For a new generation of young people—children and adolescent—show business became a legitimate social aspiration. The 2000s would shift the show business orientation of aspirants as reality television becomes the dominant television fare—singers, beauty contestants, models, actors, and even ordinary people—in ubiquitously titled shows, such as Pinoy Big Brother, Dream Academy, Star Quest and Philippine Idol.

The show business dream machine allowed models for social mobility, legitimizing the nature of stars, the workings of the industry, its magical transformative qualities, and its close affinity with politics. However, the present crop of showbiz politicians started and became most popular during the Marcos period. This retro-look of showbiz politicians indicates a kind of maturity requirement prior to entry, especially in national politics. The higher the national position, the more senior the status of the star. For the 2001 election, there were some 50 stars who ran for various positions. Here is a reported partial list of stars:

singer Imelda Papin, for congresswoman of Camarines Sur; singer Victor Wood, for congressman of Rizal; action star Gary Estrada, for congressman in Quezon province; comedian Roderick Paulate, for governor of Albay; action star Rudy Fernandez, for Quezon City mayor; actor-singer Tirso Cruz III, for mayor of Las Pinas City; actress Elizabeth Oropesa, for mayor of Guinobatan, Albay; singer and former bold star Cristina ‘Kring-kring’ Gonzalez, for mayor of Tacloban, Leyte; Lani Mercado, actress and wife of Cavite governor and [action star] Bong Revilla, for mayor of Bacoor, Cavite; actor Phillip Salvador, for vice-mayor of Mandaluyong City; actor Aga Muhlach, for vice-mayor of Muntinlupa; comedian and rapper Andrew E, for councilor of Las Pinas City; actress Aiko Melendrez, for councilor of the second district of Quezon City; actor Jestoni Alarcon, for councilor o the fourth district of Antipolo City; comedian Arnedl Iganio, for councilor of the fourth district of Quezon City; actor Diether Ocampo, for councilor of Bacoor, Cavite; and singer Kuh Ledesma, for councilor of Manila.[4]

The list does not include actors and celebrities seeking reelection:

[dramatic icon] Vilma Santos, mayor of Lipa City; [comedian and former basketball] player Joey Marquez, mayor of Paranque City; [action star] Rey Malonzo, mayor of Kalookan City; Lito Lapid, governor of Pampanga; Bong Revilla, governor of Cavite; and Manila councilors [actors] Cita Astals, Isko Moreno, Robert Ortega, and Lou Veloso[….][5]

With elections happening every three years in the Philippines—presidential and local elections every six years, half of the Senate being replaced every three years—there is an increasing interest in stars being flushed into politics. Just like the bombardment of films and media texts on audiences, so too are they periodically bombarded with political elections and choices.

Joseph Estrada, an action hero for four decades, was elected thirteenth president of the Philippines in 1998. He won with the biggest margin in presidential election history, garnering 39.9 percent of the votes cast in a field of 11 candidates. He cornered 38 percent of the 71 percent available votes from class D.[6] Estrada won big, by using the masses (masa) as a cornerstone of his presidential campaign and governance. Despite his affluent background, he succeeded, owing to his star system, to project himself as one of the masses. Estrada comes out of the local action film genre, the aksyon film or the bakbakan, “films that focuses mainly on physical conflict.”[7] His action films depicted characters in solidarity with and providing leadership for the masses. So successful is his filmic career that his double excess, more than the usual excess attributed to aspiring politicians (being a gambler, womanizer and alcoholic), were pardonable, even as the foibles of other candidates and politicians were not.[8] His campaign slogan “Erap para sa Mahirap” (Erap for the Poor; Erap, being his pet name) was not so much based on genuine pro-masses politics, but was just a mnemonically and rhetorically effective device mobilized in his campaign. That a “defender of the masses” (in film) used a pro-masses slogan through a political party called the Laban ng Makabayang Masang Pilipino (Fight of the Nationalist Filipino Masses) spelled some redundant certainty of victory.[9]


[1] Alejandro Camiling with Teresita Zuniga Camiling, “Rogelio de la Rosa” in Biographies of Famous Kapampangan, http://www-ref.usc.edu/-camiling/bio/rdelarosa.htm (accessed 30 Jan 2007).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Marites Danguilan Vitug, “Showdown and Showtime in Manila,” Asahi Shimbun Asia Network, http://www.asahi.com/english/asianet/column/eng_040126.htm (accessed 30 Jan 2007).

[4] Marion Salamanca, “Entertainment and Politics: Pinoy style, Showbiz personalities want top billing in public office,” http://www.philpost.com/0301pages/politics0301.html (accessed 30 Jan 2007).

[5] Ibid.

[6] From the Social Weather Stations exit poll, quoted in Isabelo T. Crisostomo, President Joseph Ejercito Estrada: From Stardom to History (Quezon City: J. Kriz Publishing, 1999), 314.

[7] Joel David and Lynn Pareja, “Aksyon,” CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art: Volume VIII Philippine Film (Manila: CCP, 1994), 82-83. The local aksyon genre developed as a reaction to big-budgeted Hollywood films.

[8] Estrada’s film background is not discussed without a feature of his political career. See Emmie Velarde, “Joseph Estrada,” All Star Cast (Manila: Cine Gang Publications, 1981), 30-39; Quijano de Manila, “Erap in a New Role,” Joseph Estrada and Other Sketches (Manila: National Bookstore, 1977), 1-43; and Ricky Lo, “ Joseph Estrada, Era ni Erap,” Star-Studded (Makati: Virtusio Books, Inc., 1995), 68-73.

[9] The literal use of masa is perpetuated up to Estrada’s first year of office with “Ulat sa Masa” (Report to the Masses) and “Parada ng Masa Laban sa Kahirapan” (Parade of the Masses Against Poverty). The socio-economic implications of Estrada’s first year is succinctly elaborated by Antonio Tujan Jr., “Sizing Up Erap,” Perspectives 1:13 (19 Jul 1999), 4-9. For a historical development of masa, see Corazon L. Santos, “Ang Politisasyon ng Masa at ang nobelang Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag ni Edgardo M. Reyes,” unpublished manuscript, 1999.

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