Boxing champ Manny Pacquiao will return home this week to a hero’s welcome, but his next challenge may see him go down for the count as he steps into the even more bruising ring of Philippine politics.
Pacquiao’s latest victory has earned the superstar even more acclaim and wealth, but analysts warn that adulation and big spending may not translate into votes when he runs for a seat in Congress in May national elections.
“It will be a harder battle than all the battles he has waged in the ring,” said political science professor Ronald Holmes of Manila’s De La Salle University. “They [the public] might be passionate about him in boxing, but this does not necessarily translate into political support.”
Pacquiao, 31, whose boxing riches have hauled his family out of deep poverty, appears to be taking his political future as seriously as his sporting career.
Soon after his weekend win over Ghana’s Joshua Clottey in Texas to retain the World Boxing Organization welterweight title, he affirmed his desire to represent the southern Philippine province of Sarangani.
“Now it is time for a more serious fight for me and that is my campaign for Congress. The people of my province are among the poorest. They have been under-served for too long,” he said.
“I know how my people have suffered because I have too,” he said. “That is how I grew up and because I am one of the fortunate ones to have escaped poverty, I am compelled to be a public servant for them.”
But his opponent, Roy Chiongbian, is no pushover: He comes from a powerful family that has dominated business and politics in the area for years. Members and allies of the Chiongbian clan have long occupied many of the top positions in the sparsely populated, rural and deeply impoverished province.
“It’s not easy to discount the network they have established, the support they have nurtured through the years,” Holmes said.
One key feature of the Philippines’ chaotic brand of democracy is the ability of clans to hold on to power by fair means and foul, with the same surnames being seen in political posts for generations.
Pacquiao has also tasted defeat at the polls before. Despite being worshiped by his fans, he lost his first bid for Congress in his hometown of General Santos City in 2007, also to a member of a heavyweight political clan.
For his campaign team, Pacquiao’s biggest priority now is to make personal appearances in the area and make up for the time spent outside the province while he pursued boxing glory.
“Time is running out for Manny’s campaign because he has been away training and he has to make up, saturate the whole Sarangani province,” said Mindaluz Gulle, executive director of Pacquiao’s campaign.
Still, Holmes said Pacquiao seemed more prepared than he was three years ago.
“He has been planning the transfer [to Sarangani] for quite some time. He has been more generous in helping out people in many areas there,” the analyst said.
Pacquiao’s wealth has soared with each boxing victory — he reportedly earned US$12 million for beating Clottey — and he has invested heavily in his political career by helping local communities and spending on advertising.
He also has an important backer in Philippine Senator Manny Villar, a leading presidential candidate.
Villar persuaded Pacquiao last year to join his Nacionalista Party, ending the boxer’s alliance with Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and her coalition.
Villar has since been using Pacquiao to bolster his own image, playing up the theme that they are both poor boys who fought their way to prominence, but whose hearts are still with the country’s downtrodden masses.
“When he arrives, we will help him campaign in Sarangani just as he will do the same for me,” said Villar, who is running a close second in presidential polls behind Benigno Aquino, the son of late democracy heroine Corazon Aquino.
Nacionalista spokesman Gilbert Remulla is confident that Pacquiao can go the distance.
“Manny Pacquiao can take care of his own campaign. He has the logistics, the organization that he built up for himself,” he said.
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