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Reel and real in Manila

Manila, Nov. 30 (Reuters): His life in politics had read like the script of a silver-screen blockbuster — intrigue, assassination attempts and a scandal that brought down a President.

So it seemed only natural for Luis “Chavit” Singson to make it into one.

The four-hour epic Chavit has just hit Manila’s cinemas, telling the story of the real-life hero, a former provincial governor whose allegations that Joseph Estrada creamed profits from gambling syndicates led to the President’s downfall in 2001.

The movie, reportedly the most expensive in Philippine cinema history, romps through the defining moments of Singson’s life in the northern province of Ilocos Sur, including multiple attempts on his life and his whistleblower role in the Estrada scandal.

Manila’s cinemas are not the only place where the lines between politics and entertainment are blurring as the country heads into crucial elections next May.

In the real world, the country’s answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger has just announced his candidacy for President, based on little more than his success against bad guys on film.

Wearing dark glasses and wiping away tears of emotion, 64-year-old action star Fernando Poe Jr told reporters after the announcement of his candidacy on Wednesday he was responding to a clamour from his fans.

“I went around the Philippines and I saw what the people need,” said the actor, whose roles as a Robin Hood-style underdog won him a strong following among the country’s millions of poor. “I saw the clamour, I cannot turn my back.”

He did not detail any policies. As yet, he doesn’t have any. The early favourite to be Fernando Poe Jr’s running mate is a photogenic woman who won a Senate seat thanks largely to her pulling power as a TV broadcaster.

Administration officials have tut-tutted at Poe’s utter lack of political experience, unless you count his close friendship with Estrada, himself a movie hero of the masses.

But claiming the moral high ground is tricky for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, given her apparent attempts to get Noli de Castro, a TV newsreader with a few years in the Senate behind him, to join her ticket. Independent contender Raul Roco has also been quick to surround himself with showbiz glitz.

The invasion of politics by celebrities makes for great headlines, and the Philippines is not the only country to let fame go to its head. Italy had La Cicciolina, a buxom porn star who won a seat in parliament, and the US survived the presidency of former actor Ronald Reagan.

But many believe it is a symptom of deep problems.

They see democracy in the Philippines as deformed by a huge rich-poor divide and a lack of strong grass-roots political parties that would help produce policy-driven debate.

Instead, politics is reduced to harvesting as many votes as possible at election time and celebrity has proven the best tool.

“The rigging of the presidential selection process by both the administration and the opposition leaves the people very little choice except those selected by elite political fixers,” the Philippine Daily Inquirer said in an angry editorial.

“When things go wrong after the polls, voters find themselves holding the bag in this con game called celebrity politics.”

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