Filipino 'Arnie' sets sights on presidency

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Barely three years after chasing Joseph Estrada out of the presidential palace, Filipinos are toying with the idea of electing another film star with dubious credentials to lead their turbulent country.

Barely three years after chasing Joseph Estrada out of the presidential palace, Filipinos are toying with the idea of electing another film star with dubious credentials to lead their turbulent country.

Fernando Poe Junior, an action movie hero adored by millions of Filipinos, is the main opposition candidate seeking to wrest power from Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, 56, in elections a week tomorrow. While Mr Poe, 64, has slipped behind Mrs Arroyo in the latest polls, he still commands enough support to be a serious contender for the presidency.

It is a scenario that appals the educated middle classes, who massed on the streets of Manila in January 2001 and drove out Mr Estrada after moves to impeach him for massive corruption collapsed. "Poe would be a disaster," said Sheila Coronel, the director of the Philippines Centre for Investigative Journalism, an anti-corruption watchdog.

But in a country where showbusiness is king and politics is the ultimate soap opera, Mr Poe - or FPJ, as he is known - has a huge following. At a rally in the run-down Manila district of San Andres on Friday night, middle-aged women swooned with excitement at the prospect of seeing their idol in the flesh for the first time.

"FPJ is our favourite actor, so we will try him as president," said Perfecta Trinidad, 55, jigging along to a specially adapted version of the Village People hit song, "YMCA (Go, FPJ!)" She said: "He's a kind and honest person, just like in the movies. And he's a producer as well as an actor, so he knows how to organise things."

It is not just the fact that Filipinos have apparently failed to learn their lesson that frustrates Poe opponents. Mr Estrada, for all his faults, had a grasp of the issues and experience as a former mayor, senator and vice-president. Mr Poe is a political novice who dropped out of secondary school and has never held public office.

Mr Estrada had charisma and a sense of humour, too, unlike Mr Poe, who seems peculiarly introverted for a film star. At rallies, he spends 10 minutes on stage, mumbling a few well-worn phrases before breaking into a brief rendition of a popular song. On Friday, he did not turn up at all.

Mr Poe is the despair of his minders, who shrug and laugh with embarrassment at the suggestion of an interview. He has refused to debate the issues with rival politicians or the media. He often disappears for days without explanation. "He's an actor who has been living in a bubble," says one Filipino journalist. "He has nothing between the ears." What he does have, though, is influential backers: former politicians, advisers and business figures from the Ferdinand Marcos and Estrada eras. For them, Mr Poe is simply a figurehead, a means to piggyback into power and line their pockets once again.

Mr Estrada, a close friend, has reportedly poured millions of dollars into his campaign. On trial for plundering public funds, he hopes to be pardoned if Mr Poe gets elected.

Mr Poe's shortcomings do not deter his fans, who hold "Erap" Estrada in high regard and see Mrs Arroyo as an interloper. She was elected alongside Mr Estrada as vice-president in 1998 and installed after he was forced out. "We still love Erap," said Violi di Mayin, 46, among the crowd at San Andres. "We don't believe he stole any money and, even if he did, he gave it to the poor, like Robin Hood. FPJ is on the side of the poor people, too. His friends will advise him how to run the country."

The pressing issues facing the sprawling nation of 80 million people - foreign debt, rampant corruption, terrorism and widespread poverty - did not rate a mention at the rally. Instead, Mr Poe's supporters got music, balloons and dancing girls, plus a host of minor celebrities endorsing candidates for the Senate and local government.

Political analysts say the absence of real political parties means that most people vote on name recognition. The Senate is full of former actors and sporting heroes, and the celebrity factor could yet propel Mr Poe to the highest political office.