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The Political Punch: Manny Pacquiao’s rise to power

Karim Zidan delves into Manny Pacquiao’s trajectory from boxing legend to influential politician in the Philippines, as well as his controversial record on gay rights and the death penalty. 

Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

With only 17 months left before the 2022 presidential election, Manny Pacquiao has taken a significant step towards becoming the presumptive nominee for his country’s highest post.

During a Fellowship Night held by the Partido Demokratikong Pilipino (PDP)-Laban party – the political party of President Rodrigo Duterte – Pacquiao was chosen as President of the ruling party.

The boxing icon-turned-politician was sworn in on Wednesday, Dec. 2, by former party president and Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, who will now serve as PDP-Laban’s Executive Vice-Chairman. The ceremony was held at an event space in Quezon City.

“Senator Pacquiao will bring not only more energy to the party in the sense of expanding its membership, but also more discipline to the current members in the sense of inculcating in them the concept of principles-based politics, which includes their party membership,” Senator Pimentel said.

Pacquiao’s political promotion has fueled speculation that he will run for president in 2022, which also happens to be when his term as senator comes to an end. While Pacquiao has not disclosed his political agenda for the upcoming years, he has repeatedly been urged by Duterte to run for the president.

“I told [Pacquiao], while it was just the two of us, ‘I want to make you president,’” Duterte, who is limited to a single six-year presidential term, was quoted in an Inquirer article in 2017.

While it remains unclear whether Pacquiao will run for president in the coming months, his rise to power is a case study in boxing diplomacy and a testament to the longstanding intersection between sports and politics. Pacquiao’s political influence stems from his status as a boxing icon and national hero in the Philippines, which also factors into his competitiveness as a presidential candidate, despite his controversial policies.

From Poverty to Pugilism

“When I see people in need, when I see people sleeping on the street with no food, my heart is crushed because I remember where I came from,” Pacquiao once said.

Pacquiao’s life story is the stuff of Hollywood movies – a journey that began as a stowaway on a ship bound for Manila, where Pacquiao intended to pursue his dream as a boxer.

Born in 1978 as the fourth child in a family of six siblings, Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao grew up in immense poverty – poverty so severe that his father was forced to kill their pet dog for food. At age 12, he dropped out of school to pursue a career in boxing and moved in with his uncle, Sardo Mejia, in a one-storey home in the southern Philippine city of General Santos. Mejia, who had no formal training as a fighter, would go on to become the future star’s first boxing trainer.

By 15, Pacquiao was regarded as one of the best junior boxers in the country, and frequently competed in a public park in General Santos. However, the teenager sought greater success, so he stowed away on a ship bound for Manila. When he arrived in the city, he slept on cardboard boxes, sold doughnuts, and cleaned boxing gyms in order to survive, all while continuing to improve his skills and rise through the ranks.

The following year, Pacquiao turned professional and made his official debut as a junior flyweight in 1995. Three years later, he won the World Boxing Council (WBC) flyweight title, his first major championship.

Ledwaba v Pacquiao X

Over the course of an illustrious 25-year career, Pacquiao dominated his competition, rising to become an eight-weight world champion, a lineal champion in five separate weight classes, and the only boxer to hold world championships across four decades. By 2015, his 25 pay-per-view fights had generated more than $1 billion in revenue.

Pacquiao has defeated 22 world champions, including Juan Manuel Márquez (twice), David Díaz, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito, Shane Mosley, Brandon Ríos, Timothy Bradley (twice), Chris Algieri, Jessie Vargas, Lucas Matthysse, Adrien Broner and, most recently, Keith Thurman. His achievements earned him the title of ‘Fighter of the Decade’ for the 2000s, and he was widely considered to be the pound-for-pound king until his losses in 2012.

At the height of his professional career, Pacquiao announced his campaign for a seat in the Philippine House of Representatives. And while he was ultimately defeated by the incumbent representative, who explained that “people weren’t prepared to lose him as their boxing icon,” Pacquiao’s career in politics was only just beginning.

From Pugilism to Populism

On Nov. 21, 2009, Pacquiao announced that he would once again seek a congressional seat, this time in his wife’s hometown in the Sarangani province. His campaign was a success, earning a landslide victory of more than two thirds of the votes. By 2010, Pacquiao had become a representative in the 15th Congress of the Philippines.

The pugilist-turned-politician completed his term and ran again (unopposed this time) in 2013, where he was re-elected. Shortly thereafter, Pacquiao faced the first scandal of his career when the Philippine Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) issued a freeze order on all of Pacquiao’s Philippine bank accounts due to his alleged tax evasion for earnings he made from his fights in the United States between 2008-09. The case has yet to be resolved.

In 2015, Pacquiao announced his intent to run for senator. He ran under the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) and was elected in May 2016. Shortly thereafter, he became aligned with the Duterte government, and switched to the newly-elected president’s PDP-Laban party.

BOX-PHI-UAE-PACQUIAO Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

It was here that Pacquiao showed his true colours.

During his first year as senator, Pacquiao condemned same-sex marriage, stating that “if we approve male on male, female on female [marriage], then man is worse than animal.” Hiding behind the vernacular of the Bible, the boxer added that “God only expects man and women to be together and to be legally married.”

Pacquiao was later criticized by local celebrities and members of the LGBTQ+ community around the world. Nike ended its longstanding partnership with Pacquiao over his comments. And while Pacquiao eventually apologized, he clarified that he was still against same-sex marriage.

Later that same year, Pacquiao showed support for capital punishment, once again relying on his religiosity as the basis for his argument.

“Having read the Bible on a regular basis, I am convinced that God is not just a God of mercy, but he is also a God of justice. So on the issue of the death penalty, I could not help but consult the Bible,” Pacquiao said during a Senate session in 2016. “When the government punishes, it’s not an individual act. That’s approved by God. That’s what the Bible says. Are we greater than God? Because God is allowing [the] death penalty in every nation, in every country.”

Pacquiao’s decision to align himself with Duterte – one of the most controversial leaders in Philippine history – is yet another stain on his legacy. Duterte, a populist whose popularity is rooted in his support for the extrajudicial slaughtering of drug users, has spent the last four years orchestrating a so-called War on Drugs in his homeland. He cut funding to the Commission of Human Rights during his first year in office, joked about rape when rallying his soldiers, oversaw the killing of thousands during his drug war, and even bragged about killing three people himself during his time as mayor of Davao.

PHILIPPINES-VOTE-DUTERTE-PACQUIAO Photo credit should read MANMAN DEJETO/AFP via Getty Images

While Duterte’s list of controversies is extensive, it is his ‘War on Drugs’ that has garnered the most attention. Since taking office in 2016, his drug war has led to the deaths of more than 12,000 Filipinos to date, according to Human Rights Watch. The extrajudicial violence was the cornerstone of Duterte’s campaign, and he has promoted it proudly, once saying to a crowd of hundreds of thousands, “If I make it to the presidential palace I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings, you better get out because I’ll kill you.”

Duterte’s drug war has disproportionately affected the country’s poor. Not only does it create a difficult economic environment, which in turn limits social mobility and opportunities for growth, but it also worsens the plights of women and children who are left without a primary breadwinner due to the drug killings. Given that Duterte campaigned on policies meant to alleviate poverty, his drug war proves the hypocrisy of those policies.

Despite allegations of corruption and calls for an investigation into extrajudicial killings, the Philippine leader remains popular, reportedly enjoying a 91 percent approval rating. Some of have criticized these figures as indicative of the spread of fear and fearmongering during Duterte’s tenure in office, while others have pointed to it as a proof that his policies are popular among Filipinos. There is also an argument to be made that associating with Pacquiao – himself a national icon – has helped bolster the president’s popularity.

Duterte wouldn’t be the first politician to rub shoulders with a boxing great as a soft power strategy to help improve their public image. Muhammad Ali, considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, rubbed shoulders with one of the most horrific despots of his time. Ahead of the historic ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ bout, the boxer spent five weeks living and training in Nsele, a luxurious palace belonging to then military dictator and president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Mubuto Sese Seko. Seko was notorious for corruption, embezzlement, and human rights violations like raping virgins.

Mubuto Sese Seko offered to host and finance the Ali-Foreman bout as an attempt to garner any positive publicity for himself and his regime. The prospect of hosting two strong African-American fighters in the heart of Africa was too much to resist. It was the first time that Ali’s paycheque was signed by a foreign dictator, but it wasn’t the last. In 1975, the Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos offered Ali and Frazier millions to take part in the “Thrilla in Manila” bout.

In 2005, Mike Tyson visited Chechnya and became the first celebrity athlete that Ramzan Kadyrov – the Chechen tyrant responsible for countless human rights violations against his citizens, including multiple anti-gay purges – hosted in Chechnya shortly following the conclusion of the Second Chechen War. Kadyrov’s publicity around Tyson’s visit was one of the first public displays of what appeared to be an effort to strengthen the leader’s public and political image through the use of athletes. Tyson would later visit the Chechen dictator again in 2017, long after Kadyrov had become known for atrocious human rights abuses.

Ramzan Kadyrov Photo by Kadyrov Press Office/Getty Images

As for Pacquiao, he is unlikely to stray from the path set by Duterte if he chooses to run for president. Shortly after being sworn in as president of the PDP-Laban party, Pacquiao spoke to his colleagues at the event, echoing much of Duterte’s populist rhetoric.

“We are not beholden to big businesses, foreign entities, nor vested interests, but only to the Filipino people,” Pacquiao said. “We are here to fight for the poor, the jobless, the homeless, the voiceless and the hopeless. This is what the PDP-Laban under Manny Pacquiao will stand for.”

While Pacquiao’s legacy as a professional athlete is the stuff of Hollywood movies, his political career has irreversibly tarnished that legacy. Over the past few years, Pacquiao has supported Duterte anti-poor drug war, promoted the death penalty, condemned the country’s LGBTQ+ community, and even pushed for an “anti-terrorism” bill that arbitrarily targets dissidents and has since diluted human rights in the Philippines.

Instead of focusing his efforts on being a role model for Filipino youth — a process that includes building charities and foundations, boxing gyms, and even sponsoring educational scholarships — Pacquiao allowed his quest for political power to corrupt his intentions, leaving him to become a propaganda tool for a president who sanctions murder.

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