It’s official—Manny Pacquiao, the eight-time boxing world champion, is running for president in the Philippines in what may yet be the biggest fight of his life as the country heads to polls set for May 2022.
Previously perceived as a shoe-in for the top job, Pacquiao enters the presidential race as the underdog after a falling-out with President Rodrigo Duterte, who dumped the athlete-turned-senator as his party’s candidate in favor of a closer ally.
A lawmaker since 2010, Pacquiao has parlayed his status as a boxing legend and his rags-to-riches story to win votes. Following his defeat in a Las Vegas match with Cuban welterweight champion Yordenis Ugas last month, Pacquiao’s sights are set on the political arena.
And the 42-year-old is already using sporting metaphors to set up what is guaranteed to be one of the most dramatic elections in recent memory.
“I will always be a fighter inside and outside the ring. I’ve never backed down from a fight,” Pacquiao told his supporters in a live-and-online convention Sunday as he accepted the nomination of his faction of the political party that’s also Duterte’s—split into two because of their rift.
“To those asking about my capabilities: Have you ever gone hungry? Have you ever lacked food on the table and begged from the neighbors or waited for leftovers at an eatery?”
Pacquiao hit out at Duterte’s administration, currently mired in a corruption scandal over millions of dollars’ worth of allegedly overpriced and illegal purchases of medical supplies for the pandemic.
“To those in our government who continue to take advantage and steal from the nation’s coffers: You will all soon be in jail. Your time is up,” he said.
But for all the campaign-worthy rhetoric, Pacquiao’s political ambitions have long been an open secret. He stood by Duterte through the worst controversies, and became their party’s president last year. Duterte even once called Pacquiao “the next president of the Philippines,” and he was widely expected to become the administration’s bet when Duterte’s single six-year term ends in 2022.
However, threats of human rights and corruption lawsuits and an impending International Criminal Court investigation have driven Duterte to field either his daughter Sara Duterte or his former aide Senator Bong Go as his successor while he himself runs for vice president, hoping for political protection.
Although Pacquiao is clearly a bankable candidate, running against allies of the still-popular Duterte puts him at a disadvantage.
“The truth is, our concern is the [internet] troll armies,” Antonio Antogop Jr, a lead campaigner for Pacquiao, told VICE World News. The country’s political scene is fraught with disinformation spreading through social media.
“But we’re very confident despite those dirty tactics, because they’ve really got nothing on Senator Pacquiao,” Antogop said.
Pacquiao building his campaign around his personality puts him in the same league as traditional politicians, undercutting his promise to bring change, analysts said. His narrative could also distract voters from his less-than-stellar performance as a lawmaker, and his lack of experience in an executive post.
“This is a blow to more reform-oriented groups who prefer a candidate with a good track record and clear programs of government,” Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, told VICE World News.
Critics also point to a series of remarks that could divide voters. Citing his Evangelical Christian faith, Pacquiao has pushed for the death penalty, opposed divorce and equal marriage, and made homophobic remarks.
“I worry that Senator Pacquiao’s opposition to these issues are justified on religious terms. I worry that this disproportionately amplifies the religious voices, at the expense of others,” Nicole Curato, a sociologist with The University of Canberra, told VICE World News.
Pacquiao’s move to unseat a Duterte critic from the Senate panel probing thousands of killings in the drug war was “a signal of how he treats the political opposition who has already been experiencing persecution from the Duterte administration,” she added.
But can Pacquiao win? He is, after all, a household name, and recent opinion polls include him among personalities Filipinos are considering for president.
“He has a chance if the other candidates are weak,” Atienza said. “He also has his own money to run an expensive campaign.”
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