The Philippine movie industry is in a slump, but many actors have adapted nicely to the crunch. They've landed roles in another high-profile, if less glamorous, field: politics. In the last elections Fernando Poe Jr., the King of Philippine Movies, posed the most serious challenge to the incumbent President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Three actors known for playing tough-guy heroes made it to the Senate, one of them the son of the former actor and deposed president Joseph Estrada. Movie and television personalities were elected governors, congressmen, mayors and town councilors. Two former TV news anchors squared off in the vice presidential race; the winner was Noli De Castro, best known for exposing government scams on his long-running show.

To the casual observer, the entertainer-slash-politician is a source of amusement, another example of the quaintness of Third World democracies. To Filipinos, it is simply the next stage in the evolution of democracy. We've always known that politics is a form of show business with less attractive players. Elections are always huge hits in the Philippines: voter turnout is never a problem, unlike in so-called mature democracies where the people have lost interest in their leaders. So go ahead and snigger, but we know the Philippines is the cutting edge of participatory democracy, not an isolated joke. It's happening all over the world; people just haven't noticed yet--and I don't mean just Arnold Schwarzenegger. I mean that we're entering an era in which TV not only shapes democracy but provides the most popular forms of democracy in action.

Pundits cite several reasons for the success of entertainers in Philippine elections: the absence of a real party system, the astronomical cost of election campaigns and an electorate that associates the candidate with his on-screen image. But the theory of the credulous voter is inaccurate. The average Filipino viewer does not confuse actors with their characters; we don't even see characters. We see actors playing roles, and we never forget who they are.

Traditional Philippine acting does not entail getting into character, notes film and TV director Uro de la Cruz. In effect, the actor is always playing himself. I suspect that voters look to showbiz for leadership because they see politicians as distant, alien, untrustworthy. In times of need, the people don't turn to the government. They turn on the TV.

Television has become all things to all people: friend, teacher, lover, mother. With the decline in local movie production, viewers now have the biggest stars of Philippine cinema in their homes every single day. The two largest TV networks now advertise themselves as kapuso (of the same heart) and kapamilya (member of the family), underscoring their intimate personal relationships with the viewers. News anchors don't just read the day's news, they also blast erring government officials, often without benefit of any investigation. They host public-service programs that provide everything from medical assistance to scholarships to karaoke machines (apparently a basic necessity).

In a country where about half the population lives in poverty, TV is the easiest avenue of escape. Not only does it offer variety shows, soap operas and superhero fantasies, but it also gives away millions of pesos in game shows and contests. Of course, the ultimate escape is via the new "American Idol"-type shows, in which viewers pick the winner by text-message voting. This is democracy in action: unfiltered and instantaneous.

TV has usurped the role of government as protector of the people and articulator of the popular will. When someone has a complaint, she doesn't go to the government. She goes to the TV news shows, which can grill the head of the agency concerned before millions of viewers. Is it any wonder that a former news anchor is now vice president? In the American presidential election, the real issue behind the screen was: which candidate would you rather have as a guest in your home? Well, TV is in your home 24/7. It's only a matter of time before actors step out from the tube and into office.