Philippine boxing hero Manny Pacquiao flashed his trademark smile while in the midst of his latest fight last week, but on this occasion he was wearing a suit and the arena was the nation’s parliament.
True to the eight-time world champion’s sporting reputation for boldness, Pacquiao chose the hot-button issue of contraception as the platform for his first foray into a major debate since being elected to Congress last year.
Political tensions are at fever point in the mainly Catholic nation as a diverse group of politicians try to pass a controversial bill that would mandate government support for artificial contraceptives and family planning advice.
Pacquiao generated more headlines than most in the debate this week as he took on a leadership role in the Catholic Church’s long and determined campaign to destroy the bill, which would see the state give condoms to the poor.
“God said, ‘Go out and multiply.’ He did not say, just have two or three kids,” Pacquiao said following a meeting with bishops on Tuesday, shortly after returning from Las Vegas and his latest boxing victory over Shane Mosley.
Pacquiao followed up on Wednesday by taking the floor of the House of Representatives to question the architect of the bill in a feisty debate that captivated the country, with excerpts broadcast repeatedly on news channels.
Lifting the mood initially, Edcel Lagman, the minority leader of the house and a veteran legislator, told Pacquiao he was: “Ready to rumble,” eliciting a big smile from the world champion and laughter from colleagues in the chamber.
Wearing a gray suit with a bright-red tie, Pacquiao then appeared initially uneasy against Lagman and critics accused him of showing little political savvy in the debate, but he refused to take a backward step.
“I heard ... the bill is not a magic wand that will end the suffering in our country. If so, why don’t we draft a bill that will solve all the suffering of the country ... rather than [this] bill, which I find so divisive,” he said.
Pacquiao, 32, who famously rose up from deep poverty to become a world boxing champion, has long harbored political ambitions and was elected to parliament last year after an unsuccessful initial attempt in 2007 elections.
However, he had largely stayed out of the political spotlight until last week, instead pursuing his sporting career by fighting two high-profile and lucrative bouts in the US since being elected.
Pacquiao’s supporters have lauded his decision to oppose the family planning bill as his first major political fight, saying it has earned him big credits with the Catholic Church, an enormously powerful institution in the country.
Almost 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, a legacy of the Philippines’ Spanish colonial past, and the church has helped to lead two revolutions over the past 25 years, while ensuring abortion and divorce remain illegal.
Nevertheless, Pacquiao has had to endure some bruises by stepping into the political ring last week, with his opponents accusing him of hypocrisy after he admitted that his wife used to take the pill as a form of birth control.
Pacquiao is also a well-known gambler with a reputation for late-night partying with friends.
However, the father-of-four insisted his decision to oppose the family planning bill was driven by strict Catholic moral values and a desire to help the tens of millions of impoverished Filipinos.