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The celebrity candidates in the 2022 Philippine presidential election

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

A boxing legend, a former screen actor, a scion of one of the country's most powerful dynasties - the May 2022 election to succeed outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte promises to be a spectacle studded with star power. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on the popularity of celebrity candidates in the Philippines.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Just weeks before declaring his candidacy for the presidency...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Fighting out of the blue corner, really needing no introduction, the world over...

MCCARTHY: ...Manny Pacquiao, sitting senator, stepped into a Las Vegas boxing ring. Regarded as one of the greatest professional boxers of all time, Pacquiao took the plaudits and the punches.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Final 10 seconds, fans standing on their feet.

MCCARTHY: He lost - the final bout of a career crown with world titles in eight different weight divisions. But Pacquiao can trade his spectacular fame as an athlete for support in the presidential ring. Political analyst Richard Heydarian says celebrities translating their star power to political power is rooted in the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and his abolishing of political parties. Once he fell, entertainers rushed to join the fiesta of democracy that followed.

RICHARD HEYDARIAN: So increasingly, you have celebrities, actors especially, you know, noontime show hosts are leveraging their popularity, and they turned it into political capital. So in a strange fashion, you have celebrities presenting themselves as kind of a new force as, like, agents of change.

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ISKO MORENO: (Singing) Don't tell my heart, my achy breaky heart.

MCCARTHY: Manila City Mayor Isko Moreno, now a presidential candidate, went from teeny-bopper star on television to making rom-coms. The 46-year-old's up-from-your-bootstraps bio is itself the stuff of movies. As a child of Manila's biggest slum, Moreno scavenged for food that his mother repurposed into family dinners. John Joseph Nite says his uncle discovered Moreno at a wake, plucking him from obscurity and landing him in show business. Nite says his good looks and youth were only a part of his success.

JOHN JOSEPH NITE: He was really, at a very young age, objective-oriented. I mean, he doesn't dance, but he will dance. He cannot sing, but he will sing. He had a lot of difficulties, a lot of disappointments, but he went on.

MCCARTHY: In his two decades in politics, the Manila mayor has capitalized on his film star status, using his stage name Isko Moreno. Growing up poor adds to the celebrity sheen of both Moreno and Manny Pacquiao, raised by a single mom. The two use their personal histories to court the millions of Filipinos who live in poverty. Sociologist Walden Bello, who's running for vice president, says because it's virtually impossible for the poor to rise in a society as stratified as the Philippines, their rags-to-riches story has unique appeal.

WALDEN BELLO: Their message is, if I can make it, I can certainly help you make it. My program will be to make you rise together with me. That's the message that Moreno and Pacquiao have been delivering.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Message received for street vendor Antonio Barbosa. The 56-year-old says he's voting for Manny Pacquiao.

ANTONIO BARBOSA: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Pacquiao said, if he wins, there won't be any poor, Barbosa says. There won't be people on the street anymore. He'll put up housing. And he'll put the corrupt in jail. I believe he'll deliver because he was poor like me. But 48-year-old Hilda Labinet has little use for celebrities.

HILDA LABINET: That is the failure of democracy in the Philippines.

MCCARTHY: In fact, Labinet says celebrity candidates are weakening the country. Just as damaging are the offspring of political dynasties who run for high office.

LABINET: These people who are famous - because they are celebrities is the only reason why people will vote for them. But that doesn't necessarily mean they have the capacity to lead. Most of these people - they got the position, they sit there, but they are just like a decoration.

MCCARTHY: Heydarian says they're not all decoration. In fact, celebrity officeholders frequently go in for self-improvement, like Isko Moreno.

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MORENO: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Having earned a degree in public administration and a stint at Harvard, he talks up education in campaign ads. As mayor, he's credited with uplifting the poor. Whether they uplift anything, family dynasties are treated as stars in the Philippine political firmament. Bongbong Marcos, heir to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is alternately revered and reviled in his bid for the presidency. Richard Heydarian says dynasties and the celebrity class combined have a near monopoly on national office.

HEYDARIAN: And that is why elected office is almost unreachable for a lot of ordinary Filipinos who may have the merit, who may have the passion to serve. But if you are not part of those two elite groups, it's going to be very hard for you to crack.

MCCARTHY: And Heydarian says non-elites being locked out from elected high office makes a mockery of Philippine democracy. But he says a record number of young people registering to vote offers a flicker of hope.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.