MANILA, December 29, 2003  (STAR) Barely three years after actor turned president Joseph Estrada was deposed, the Philippines seems poised to elect another screen celebrity.

Latest surveys put Fernando Poe, "Da King" of Philippine movies, as the front-runner in the May presidential elections, even though the actor, popularly known as "FPJ," is a high school dropout with no political experience.

Veteran politicians like President Arroyo are scrambling to catch up with Poe, who has been endorsed by a coalition of opposition groups even though it is unclear what he stands for.

"He has captured the imagination, not only as a heroic figure who will fight our battles against injustice. He invokes the heroism that is within all of us who are looking for leadership," said former agrarian reform secretary Horacio Morales, now an opposition leader.

Filipinos have been voting showbiz celebrities into office for decades.

Action stars, lowbrow comedians, matinee heartthrobs, aging basketball heroes and TV talk show hosts have all used their fame to get elected as mayors, governors, congressmen and senators.

In 1998 Estrada — a movie star second in popularity only to Poe — was elected president despite his lack of education, his drinking, womanizing and poor work habits.

Half way into his term, Estrada was ousted in 2001 by a popular uprising sparked by a massive corruption scandal and his own poor governance.

He is now being tried on plunder charges which could get him the death penalty if convicted.

Despite Estrada’s failure, many Filipinos, particularly the poor, are still ready to cast their vote for movie stars.

Opposition former congressman Miguel Romero, a veteran politician, defends this trend.

"The public is tired of politicians generally because of what’s happening to the country. peace and order are going down, the economy is in bad shape," said Romero, the spokesman for the coalition backing Poe.

"The elections in this country are about popularity and there is no doubt about it. FPJ is a vote-getter," he said.

Laura Samson, chairwoman of the sociology department of the University of the Philippines, said people "tend to vote for someone they feel close to and movie personalities and TV personalities have that kind of virtual intimacy. They are part of their lives.

"They are desperate and they see people like FPJ as a savior."

STAR columnist Teodoro Benigno said electing movie stars was one way for poor Filipinos to flex their muscles against the wealthy, educated sectors whom they perceive as indifferent to their suffering.

"They make use of this electoral democracy to stuff this democracy into our throats and so the people elect their populist idols like FPJ," Benigno wrote in The STAR. — AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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