When boxing hero Manny Pacquiao finally calls an end to his historic career in the ring, he will have his eyes on a much bigger prize—President of the Philippines.
The world champion, who will fight American Floyd Mayweather Jr. this weekend in boxing’s richest fight, has used the fame and wealth generated by his remarkable sporting feats to launch a successful political career.
The 36-year-old former street kid is now a second-term congressman, with publicly declared ambitions eventually to conquer one of Asia’s most chaotic and corrupt democracies.
Pacquiao confirmed his presidential ambitions to Agence France-Presse in 2013 but has since been coy about his political plans.
“Yes,” he said then, when asked if he wanted to be President. “[But] it’s far away . . . it’s God’s will.”
In the run-up to the Mayweather bout, Pacquiao’s American promoter, Bob Arum, reignited Pacquiao-the-politician talk when he said his client had a strategy laid out for a presidential run.
“He is going to be President,” Arum told paparazzi website TMZ.
“He is going to run for the Senate of the Philippines in 2016 and then 2022 or maybe later he’ll run for President.”
Poor attendance record
Although he is almost unanimously adored in the Philippines for his exploits in the ring and widely admired for his sportsmanship, there are doubts about whether he has what it takes to be President.
Pacquiao has the dubious distinction of having the worst attendance record in Congress last year, raising questions as to whether he is truly committed to helping his constituents.
He was present in only four of 70 session days in 2014, according to attendance records of the House of Representatives.
The records also showed that he authored only four bills, none of which was passed into law.
“That’s what you call a zero record,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, also told AFP.
Many also believe that Pacquiao, for better or worse, has embraced the bruising, big-spending tactics that are commonly used in the Philippines’ ruthless political ring.
“Unfortunately, he is learning the bad side of politics,” Casiple said.
He noted that, since losing in his first campaign in 2007, Pacquiao has turned political rivals into allies and paving the way for his own political dynasty.
“He was a good student of traditional politics after he lost,” Casiple said.
One of Pacquiao’s longtime political mentors is Luis “Chavit” Singson, a self-confessed former gambling lord who leads his own political dynasty and whose politician-son was jailed for cocaine possession in Hong Kong.
Former congresswoman Darlene Antonino-Custodio, who gave Pacquiao his first and only political defeat in 2007, said the boxer could be too gullible in terms of whom he decided to choose as allies.
“I like Manny. I think he is a very sincere politician. He just needs to be careful about who he surrounds himself with,” she added.
Still, Pacquiao showed in his successful campaign for Sarangani’s congressional seat in 2010 elections that he was a savvy politician.
He used his vast wealth to defeat dynasty patriarch Roy Chiongbian in the poor southern province of Sarangani.
Pacquiao spent enormous amounts to win favor, giving a mayor a firetruck, building a gymnasium, installing electricity and potable water systems in churches and mosques and paying for scholarships and funerals.
Then he formed an alliance with the Chiongbians that enabled him to run unopposed for a second term in 2013.
Pacquiao also quickly began laying the groundwork for a political dynasty.
Dynasties are widely blamed for the Philippines’ endemic corruption and weak democracy, with families using their power in local fiefdoms to control businesses and perpetuate their rule.
Pacquiao’s popularity and influence helped his wife, Jinkee, a political-novice housewife who had only previously worked as a shopping mall beauty consultant, get elected as Sarangani vice governor in 2010.
At the same time, in Paquiao’s hometown of General Santos City, a party mate was elected mayor while two of his brothers and a sister-in-law were also elected village councilors.
But Casiple believes that Pacquiao’s riches and boxing legend alone will not be enough to propel him to the presidency in 2022, and he has much to learn before then.
“Everyone who thought they could be President based on money and popularity alone lost,” he said.
Ateneo de Manila University political science professor Benito Lim said Pacquiao needed to build a serious political platform if he wanted the public to see him as a presidential timber.
“He can’t rely on just handouts if he wants to be President,” Lim said, referring to the big-spending tactics employed in the 2010 local elections.
“His money is not enough. He needs a meaningful vision for the country and the public is waiting for that.”