COVER STORY

What's in a name?: Celebrities, other popular names continue to rule PH Congress

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 7) — The opening of the 19th Congress ushered in a new leadership with complete newbies sharing key roles with returning legislators.

The Senate has three neophytes: action star Robinhood Padilla, veteran broadcaster Raffy Tulfo, and former Cabinet official Mark Villar.

Meanwhile, among the 150 rookies at the House of Representatives are actor and former Ormoc Mayor Richard Gomez and presidential son Sandro Marcos.

Many elections have passed, but why do Filipinos continue to vote for celebrities and other popular names and families?

Political analyst Michael Yusingco said the lack of "genuine political parties" contribute to this behavior among voters.

"If our political parties continue to be personality-driven and candidate-centered, then our elections will always be about popularity and name-recall and be perversely personality-oriented," Yusingco told CNN Philippines

"The only way we can move away from this kind of political culture is if we have more political parties that have clear constituencies in terms of people and principles," he added.

Aside from having weak political parties in the country, another political expert, Maria Ela Atienza, expressed belief that disinformation favored those who have the power.

"Campaigns are also very expensive and favor those who have resources and popular names," said Atienza in a message to CNN Philippines. "There is also very low voter education and the high incidence of poverty make more people vulnerable to vote buying and coercion.

"The rise of social media and disinformation also favored those who have power and not necessarily those who have the credentials and track record to run for public office," she also said.

Household names

Padilla topped the Senate race with 26.6 million votes despite having no political background. The 52-year-old actor has been one of the strong advocates of a federal government. He was named as chairperson of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments, making him the first non-lawyer to lead the panel.

READ: Padilla eyes to consult provinces, end charter change hearings this year

Padilla also made noise when he proposed cable cars as a mode of transportation in a bid to solve the traffic congestion in Metro Manila. Although it received chuckles from the public, his suggestion was already considered by the Department of Transportation in the previous administration.

Adding to the list of celebrities in the Senate is broadcaster Tulfo, who is known for his public service show that acts on complaints and feuds. Most of the priority bills he filed were based on the issues he has dealt in his show particularly employment woes and domestic violence.

Just like on television, Tulfo is also seeking to address marital issues in Congress by refiling the bill on legalization of divorce. In an earlier statement, Tulfo said he wants to sit down for a dialogue with the Catholic Church to discuss the need for divorce in the country.

Although he is already a familiar name in the government, former Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar is now joining his mother Cynthia Villar in the upper chamber. His father, tycoon Manny Villar, was also a former lawmaker, while his sister Camille is one of the current House deputy speakers.

The former Cabinet official has filed a bill seeking to institutionalize the “Build, Build, Build” program by creating a 30-year national infrastructure plan. The bill would help the government identify infrastructure projects that will be given priority.

In the lower chamber, actor-athlete Gomez continues to boost his political portfolio as Leyte's 4th district representative. He swapped positions with wife Lucy Torres, who now sits as the mayor of Ormoc, Leyte.

Some of the bills he has filed include the Philippine National Games Act, the creation of the National Film Archive, and the granting of incentives to Filipino artists who are in international competitions. In an earlier interview, he mentioned that he is also filiing a measure seeking to revive the death penalty for drug traffickers.

But political experts have no high expectations especially from the neophyte senators. 

"They do not really stand out from the current crop of lawmakers," said Yusingco. "No expectation that they will author groundbreaking legislations such as the Local Government Code and the like."

"Having no genuine political party to discipline them, more than likely, they will also be mixed up with transactional politics in one form or another," he added.

For her part, Atienza said it is difficult to have legislators who have no idea or training to be a member of the Senate.

"Instead of focusing on the actual responsibilities of senators, they have to spend a lot of time to learn on the job," she pointed out. "Hopefully, they have hired qualified and eligible staff members who can assist them in the work in the Senate.”

The presidential son

Another popular rookie in Congress is presidential son Sandro Marcos, who was elected Ilocos Norte 1st district representative. He is also the nephew of House Speaker Martin Romualdez, the cousin of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.

Some of the bills that the 27-year-old lawmaker has filed are in line with the priority measures of his father's administration. Among them are the creation of the Virology Institute of the Philippines, National Government Rightsizing Program, E-Government Act, and the E-Commerce Law. Most of his bills were co-authored with his uncle and Tingog Siniringan Party-list Representatives Yedda Marie Romualdez and Jude Acidre.

READ: LIST: Mandatory ROTC among BBM's priority measures in SONA 2022

Despite the presidential son joining the lower chamber, Yusingco said he does not see any significant impact on its performance.

"The HOR (House of Representatives) will still be perceived as being subordinate to the President, just like in the previous administration," he said.

"No expectation that there will be any radical change in terms of performance," he also said. "Meaning, the chamber will still march to the tune set by the President, just like in the previous administration."

Instead, Atienza said he sees the presence of Marcos' son and cousin as representation of political dynasty.

"Having the President's son in the House of Representatives and a cousin as Speaker represent the dominance of political dynasties instead of programmatic and principled politics in the House," Atienza said. "They also symbolize the fact that in national politics, only a few political dynasties with a lot of resources and networks dominate."

The honor student

Although he is not a celebrity or connected to a political clan, Kabataan Party-list Rep. Raoul Manuel made headlines in 2015 after he graduated as the University of the Philippines Visayas’ first summa cum laude.

Manuel has been in leadership roles as he was a former chairperson of the College of Arts and Sciences Student Council and was often present in student rallies.

Among his co-authored bills are increasing the salary of teachers and non-teaching personnel, inclusion of Philippine History in high school curriculum, repealing of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, and imposing a tax on individuals with net value assets exceeding P1 billion.

Yusingco said he believes that Manuel and the Kabataan Party-list were able to secure a seat after the party “capitalized on its popularity amongst our youth quite well.”

“I would say they’ve been able to tap into the frustration and anxiety that many young Filipinos are feeling today," he said. "As a political party with a clear constituency in terms of people and principle, they’ve been able to convince voters that they can do some good in the HOR."

The country made history last May 9 after 83% or 55.5 million of the 65.7 million registered voters exercised their right to vote.

How they voted will determine the next six years of the government.