Will fabled Philippine boxer Emmanual (Manny) Pacquiao’s next step into the ring be to face Sara Duterte, Bongbong Marcos, Leni Robredo and any of the other hopefuls for the 2022 presidential election?
It seems a long shot, even by the standards of celebrity politics in a country given to silver screen heroes and famous names. But Manny is nothing if not a fighter, and one who would be unlikely to settle for second place on someone else’s ticket, a powerless post which is seldom a stepping-stone to the top.
Pacquiao’s name has long been bandied about as an outside possibility. Although he may have spent very little time in the work of government he has long shown a desire to lever his name as a many times world champion boxer at the ballot box. His first effort, to win a House seat in General Santos City, ended in defeat, but he persevered, studying political science and in 2010 easily beat the long-entrenched Chiongbian family to win the sole seat of Sarangani, the small province in the far south of Mindanao in 2013. His next step up was to the Senate in 2016, coming seventh in the election of 12 senators. He does not lack the ambition to crown his boxing career with the presidency.
Although he currently ranks far behind Sara Duterte and Bongbong Marcos in opinion polling about the next president, signs are that he may be getting in training for a fight. Along with Duterte himself, Pacquiao is a member of PDP-Laban, the loose knit-group which counts as a party. However, Pacquiao has clashed with Duterte’s point-man in PDP-Laban, his Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, and with presidential spokesman Harry Roque.
Meanwhile, other goings-on within PDP-Laban suggest that the Duterte and Marcos families are engaging in a dance of scorpions. PDP-Laban has given its leader a free hand in choosing his successor and urged him to run for vice-president himself. At the same time, Bongbong Marcos has scheduled a visit to Davao to see Sara Duterte. What deal can they cut? And where does Papa Digong fit?
Can Pacman compete in this game of thrones? He issued a rebuke to Duterte for his unwillingness to stand up for his country in confronting China’s aggression in the West Philippine sea: “For me, I find it lacking,” he said. “I find it lacking compared to how he was before he ran for president. He should have continued that so that we get some respect.”
Duterte’s unwillingness to confront China and back up the 2016 success at the Court of Arbitration has not been popular, but has not been enough to undermine his overall popularity, built on his murderous drug war. But a tougher stance of China, which would also meet with the approval of most of Duterte's critics on the center and left may yet have political mileage in the hands of a proven fighter.
The Covid-created recession could well linger on into 2022, a combined contraction in the economy similar to that in 1984/85 which saw the end of the Marcos regime. So far it has merely bruised the government, despite epic mishandling of lockdowns which did little good, and now a fumbled vaccination program.
In other ways, Pacquiao’s views are essentially those of a provincial conservative from an evangelical background. His past association with Duterte goes back a long way and apparently includes membership of an obscure Mindanao fraternity. He has praised the drug war mass killings, opposes gay marriage, wants to bring back capital punishment, and is generally loathed by the left. He is regarded with suspicion by the big business groups who do not quite understand his economic agenda – if he has one -- and his simplistic views on most issues. His actual political experience is minimal – far less even than previous celebrity candidates such as Joseph Estrada and Fernando Poe. Finding allies may be a problem for him.
Center and liberal voters appalled by extra-judicial killings, the kowtowing to China over the West Philippine Sea, and the jailing of much-respected former justice secretary and still Senator Leila de Lima, have formed a group around retired associate justice Antonio Carpio, the lawyer behind the nation’s successful case at the Court of Arbitration.
Named 1Sambayan the group includes Liberal party members and moderate leftists, and former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario. However, whether it can create a broad anti-Duterte from is questionable given the fragmentation of interests, and its lack, to date, of a populist standard-bearer. Leni Robredo might be but estimates of her popularity vary widely in the Philipp9ines’ notoriously unreliable polls, with one putting her fourth behind Pacquiao but another putting her ahead of Sara Duterte.
Meanwhile, despite his lack of government experience, Pacquiao has better claims to be a Mindanaoan than the Cebu-linked Dutertes – he was born in Bukidnon, grew up in General Santos, and married a girl from Sarangani. As for allies, those desperate to prevent the victory of another Duterte or Marcos will likely need to find some uncomfortable bedfellows. There is little to stop Duterte from running for vice-president and so be kingmaker. He swapped roles with daughter Sara to become vice-mayor of Davao in 2010. But is he too old and sick to bother?
And how would Manny feel about that? A dynast born the same year (1978) preferred over a world champion, the world’s most famous Filipino? Manny may not be so smart outside the ring but probably has more personal pride than the rest combined.
Other possibilities exist too. Some of the tycoons have been in trouble from the recession and maybe unwilling to throw money around but the aging so-called “brown tycoon” (to distinguish him from the rest who are Chinese or mestizo) Manny Villar, with a fortune and years of experience in government and business just might run again – he lost to Noynoy Aquino in 2010. Other names from the past like Grace Poe are still around and new ones include Duterte’s Davao acolyte Bong Go and Manila mayor and former movie star Isko Moreno.
The volatility of alliances and the voting system itself – Fidel Ramos won in 1992 with just 23% of the vote -- ensures that there are plenty of excitements to come before the end of May 9, 2022.