Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao has mastered the art of fighting. At 42, he has 12 world boxing titles across eight weight divisions. Out of the 72 bouts in his career, he’s won 62.
But his latest fight is going to require an entirely different set of skills. Pacquiao is taking on former ally Rodrigo Duterte to run for president of the Philippines in May 2022.
He’s leaning on his rags-to-riches backstory and nearly universal name recognition in the Southeast Asian nation of 109 million. But he’s also picked up some of Duterte’s own populist moves, waging a campaign that is long on blistering attacks, bold accusations of corruption and sweeping promises to fix problems—and short on details.
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“I am a fighter, and I will always be a fighter—inside and outside the ring,” Pacquiao, who was elected to the Philippine senate in 2016, said when he announced his presidential bid on Sunday. “To those serving our government, who continue to exploit and steal from government coffers, you’ll soon be rounded up in prison. Your time is up.”
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His legislative agenda as senator has been largely shaped by his conservative Christian upbringing, but It’s unclear exactly how Pacquiao would run the Philippines as president. His lack of policy direction leaves Filipinos without a blueprint for the country’s next six years. However, his history of defending Duterte’s bloody drug war shows that he is not necessarily opposed to the outgoing president’s approach.
So far his most notable split from Duterte is on China: Pacquiao called the president out for his softer stance on China’s encroachments on territory claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea. But some observers are unsure whether this is just theatrics, or whether Pacquiao really plans to get tough on China—his country’s largest trading partner.
Pacquiao’s uphill battle for the Philippine presidency
The Philippine presidential election is still months away, but so far Pacquiao looks more like an undercard fighter than a main bout contender.
Duterte is limited to one term by the Philippine constitution, but he has already been nominated to run for vice president by the Philippine Democratic Party–People’s Power party (PDP–Laban)—the party that both he and Pacquiao belong to. Many observers believe Duterte will use the post of vice president to remain the country’s de-facto leader.
Duterte’s daughter Sara is the frontrunner for the presidency, according to the latest pre-election survey by Philippine poll company PulseAsia—though she has denied that she is running. Also bearing mass appeal is former garbage collector and now Manila City Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso. Pacquiao came fifth in the poll.
“I think the odds are, at this stage, stacked against Senator Pacquiao,” says Lucio Pitlo III, a research fellow at Manila-based think tank Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. “His experience in politics is still up for question.”
Pacquiao’s career in public office began in 2010, when he was elected to the Philippine House of Representatives. In 2016, he won a seat in the Senate. But his tenure has been marred by several controversies.
The boxer drew international ire while campaigning for the Senate when he said LGBTQ+ people are “worse than animals.” As a senator, he also received criticism for having the worst attendance record. Furthermore, he has not been clear about whether he is willing to fully retire from boxing and commit to politics.
Pacquiao has also been criticized for being unclear about fully retiring from boxing. On Sept. 29, he posted a 14-minute Facebook video announcing his retirement from the sport that made him an international star.
“It is difficult for me to accept that my time as a boxer is over,” Pacquiao said. “I never thought that this day would come. As I hang up my boxing gloves, I would like to thank the world especially the Filipino people for supporting Manny Pacquiao.”
But, this is not his first time he bid goodbye to boxing ahead of an election. In April 2016, after winning a bout against Timothy Bradley, the Filipino boxer said he was retiring to “serve the people.” In May that year, he was among the 12 newly-elected Philippine senators—and went back to boxing months later in a face-off with American Jessie Vargas.
Pacquiao’s latest retirement announcement came just days before the formal start of election season.
Read more: The Killing Time: Inside Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs
“I think the generation now is expecting more, especially if you’re gunning for the top post in the land,” Pitlo said. “If you’re okay with the senatorial post, I think people can put up with it, but the presidency is a very hard position.”
Still, he has proved he can bring voters to the polls: Pacquiao won more than 16 million votes in his senatorial race in 2016, almost as many as Duterte received to secure the presidency the same year.
Philippine senators are elected in nation-wide voting, similar to a presidential race. And Pacquiao’s biggest base of support came from the southern island of Mindanao—Duterte’s electoral stronghold.
“His big chance of winning depends on whether he can get the loyalty of Mindanao voters transferred from the Dutertes to him,” says Antonio La Viña, a political analyst and former Dean of the Ateneo School of Government in Manila.
The tournament will be clearer in early October, once all candidates have declared their bids and Pacquiao knows who he’s up against. Pacquiao may have a solid election lead if he is the only candidate from Mindanao to run for president. But if Duterte’s daughter Sara announces she’ll run, she and Pacquiao could split the huge southern voting bloc.
Pacquiao and Duterte: From friends to rivals
Though he won’t officially be on the ballot for president, Rodrigo Duterte may be Pacquiao’s biggest threat. PulseAsia polls show Duterte’s approval ratings consistently above 70%.
Public officials have taken advantage of this and have tried to align themselves with Duterte throughout his presidency—to the extent that lawmakers from other political parties have jumped ship to join PDP-Laban.
For the most part, Pacquiao’s politics have been aligned with those of Duterte. The two have been more than just party mates—they were once close allies. In addition to defending Duterte’s drug war, which has left thousands dead, Pacquiao helped stop senator and now-jailed Duterte critic Leila de Lima from investigating the government’s actions. Duterte has returned the favor, calling Pacquiao a “president-to-be” in 2016.
Read more: Medical Populism Hasn’t Saved the Philippines from COVID-19
But the warm relationship has fallen through, just months before the Philippines’ election season begins in October. Pacquiao has called for a probe into the Philippines’s social welfare ministry, alleging a “web of corruption” involving some $207 million in pandemic aid that was unaccounted for. In turn, Duterte says Pacquiao is “punch-drunk.” The ensuing war of words has been exacerbated by the split of the PDP-Laban party into Pacquiao-allied and Duterte-allied factions.
However, highlighting corruption allegations within Duterte’s government could be fruitful territory for Pacquiao, says La Viña. The International Criminal Court is investigating the deadly drug war, and senators are currently grilling the administration for awarding $173 million worth of purchase deals for COVID-19 pandemic supplies to a company with links to his former economic adviser.
That means Duterte and whomever he chooses to run for president will no longer be able to run as a political outsider, and instead must face Duterte’s record for the previous six years—including unfulfilled promises to stamp out corruption, and deadly COVID-19 surges that have overwhelmed the fragile medical system, despite the government enforcing some of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world.
In May 2022, Pacquiao will be in the biggest fight of his political career. He has over a decade of experience, and he takes pride in being able to get back up after taking a beating.
But it remains to be seen whether he will truly be able to copy Duterte’s playbook. When, in May, Pacquiao criticized Duterte for his meek handling of Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea, Duterte hit back at the senator with a blunt response: “Study harder.”
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