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Fiesta-Style Campaigning Is The Soul Of Philippine Elections

May 4, 1992 GMT

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ The crowd appeared listless as a Senate candidate enumerated his qualifications for the May 11 election. But the audience came alive when he said: ″And now, I’ll sing you a song.″

Entertainment plays a large role in the Philippine campaign as thousands of candidates stump for votes in more than 17,000 contests ranging from successor to President Corazon Aquino down to village councils seats.

Candidates are barred by law from buying ads for radio, television and newspapers, so public rallies - heavy on glitz and glitter - afford the best way of reaching voters in a country with poor communications and an underdeveloped national media.

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Most of the seven presidential candidates bring along popular Filipino entertainers to draw crowds, especially in sleepy provincial towns short on local attractions.

As the big names from politics and show business descend on small communities, the atmosphere is similar to the hoopla and hyperbole of the traveling circus of bygone years.

″It’s one-upmanship,″ said Tony Gatmaitan, a political strategist for presidential aspirant Eduardo ″Danding″ Cojuangco. ″Every candidate knows ‘I’ll have to have better stars or I’ll lose face.’ Filipinos love elections for their fiesta quality.″

Even the candidates get into the act. Imelda Marcos, widow of the late President Ferdinand Marcos and a presidential contender, sings to her audiences and even sheds a few well-timed tears when supporters crowd around her.

At a rally Sunday in the Manila suburb of Las Pinas, Guillermo Carague, running for the Senate on presidential candidate Fidel Ramos’ ticket, warmed up the audience with a snappy rendition of the U.S. Marine Corps hymn on his harmonica.

″Remember me at election,″ said Carague, the former budget secretary. ″I’m the one who played the harmonica.″

His fellow Senate candidate, former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez, thundered to the crowd about the pursuit of justice. But the applause came when he belted out ″When You Tell Me That You Love Me,″ popularized by Diana Ross.

There is little reluctance to harp on a candidate’s physical attractiveness.

″He is very handsome, isn’t he?″ comedian Bert Marcelo said while introducing Senate candidate Mario Leviste during a recent rally for Cojuangco on Mindoro island.

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Dozens of young women, barely old enough to vote, giggled as Leviste took the microphone.

This style may do little to enlighten voters on such issues as the $29 billion foreign debt, stagnant economy and unemployment.

But political strategists say voters will not attend rallies limited to staid speeches, especially those delivered in English, which few Filipinos understand well.

″Where are the artists?″ Angelita Castillo, a Las Pinas housewife, asked a companion as she listened to the issues being discussed at a rally. ″It’s getting boring.″

With glamour a must, most of the leading presidential candidates have entertainers on their Senate tickets. Recent surveys show that entertainer- candidates, such as actors Ramon Revilla, Vic Sotto and Chiquito Pangan, are virtual shoo-ins for the 24-member Senate.

Matinee idol and current Sen. Joseph Estrada is leading in the race for vice president, who is elected separately from the president. That has led to some concern among better educated Filipinos about the effectiveness of a political system that places so much emphasis on glamour.

″The next president will have to take a look at the constitution,″ Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile said. ″There is something wrong with a system that puts so many entertainers and sports figures in the Senate.″