Pacquiao will get his votes, but his reputation is down for the count

Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao speaks to supporters during the start of elections campaigning in Mandaluyong city, Manila.
Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao speaks to supporters during the start of elections campaigning in Mandaluyong city, Manila.PHOTO: REUTERS

His anti-gay slurs may be whipping up a torrent of abuse online, but Manny Pacquiao, the eight-time world boxing champion, may just have broadened his appeal among Catholics and fundamentalist Christians.

For an evangelical Protestant restyling himself as a politician in a largely Catholic and conservative nation, his opinion on homosexuality, though anachronistic and has cost him a Nike contract, may not matter much. It certainly will not hurt him at the polls.

Now 37 and already past his prime as a professional boxer, Pacquiao is running for senator in the May 9 elections.

Pundits say the outrage he ignited when he said couples in gay relationships were "worse than animals" will knock a few points off his polling numbers, but he is still a shoo-in for senator. Independent polls rank him eighth in a field of over four dozen candidates vying for 12 Senate seats.

Gay rights advocates and local celebrities are calling on voters to drop Pacquiao. But politics-wise, they really don't have much sway.

Proof of this is that the local community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders - LGBTs - has had little success getting a seat in Congress.

Their political party Ladlad - Tagalog for "come out of the closet" - chalked up just 0.37 per cent of over 50 million votes up for grabs in its first electoral contest in 2010. It competed once more in 2013, but again ended up with a paltry share.

For failing to get at least 2 per cent of all votes cast in two successive elections, Ladlad has been delisted. It won't get another shot till 2019.

The party's bane has been the Catholic church.

Nine out of every 10 Filipinos are Catholics, and while not all are devout, most take counsel from priests on matters concerning their lives, including politics.

The Catholic church does not openly endorse specific candidates, but it issues pastoral letters read in its 600,000 churches and 20 million chapels just before polling day that enumerate the traits of candidates Catholics must vote for - spiritual, God-fearing, conservative - and the issues it opposes: birth control, divorce, same-sex marriage.

Outside the Catholic faith, there are Christian denominations like the 2.6 million-strong Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) that tell their followers who exactly to vote and are even more conservative.

Pacquiao's views on homosexuality, though crudely expressed, resonate with these groups, and that may be more than enough to get him elected.

His reputation, however, is down for the count, with words like "ignorant", "bigot" and "hypocrite" forever tarnishing his name and legacy as a phenomenal athlete and his nation's pride.

He is the new Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius, sporting gods who have fallen from grace, people say.

But like the hard-charging, nearly unstoppable force that he is on the ring, Pacquiao is not about to back down till the final bell.

He sees his faith under attack and reacts the way a zealot would.

"I don't want to compromise my faith because I want salvation in my life. I don't want to be on the wrong side just so people will vote for me," he said.

He doesn't really have to worry about people voting for him. But as for his salvation, that is very much up for debate.

rdancel@sph.com.sg