Boxer looms as obstacle to Duterte's succession plans

A 2017 photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) with boxing icon and newly elected Senator Manny Pacquiao in Davao. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
A 2017 photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) with boxing icon and newly elected Senator Manny Pacquiao in Davao. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MANILA • Boxer-turned-politician Manny Pacquiao is emerging as an obstacle to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's succession plans when his single six-year term ends next year.

Mr Pacquiao, a Duterte ally since his shock election win in 2016, has rankled other loyalists to the strongman leader since becoming acting head of the President's ruling PDP-Laban party in December.

Tensions spiked last week when Mr Pacquiao urged members to ignore a meeting convened by a rival that called on Mr Duterte to pick the party's presidential candidate in 2022 and run for vice-president.

That party resolution opened the door for the 76-year-old leader to stay in a top government post as he looks to avoid criminal charges after he leaves office, a common occurrence in the Philippines.

But it also complicates the presidential ambitions of Mr Pacquiao, 42, who will be eligible to stand for the top job for the first time. The boxer, who is set to fight undefeated rival Errol Spence Jr in Las Vegas on Aug 21, faces stiff competition for Mr Duterte's endorsement ahead of the May 2022 vote.

Other prospective candidates include Mr Duterte's daughter Sara, as well as his aide Christopher "Bong" Go, and Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr - the only son of the former Philippine dictator.

However, Mr Pacquiao's star power and wealth mean he may be the one candidate who could mount an independent campaign if Mr Duterte backs someone else.

And given both hail from the southern Philippines, a competition between their camps risks splitting the vote and opening the door for opposition figures to take the presidency.

"Duterte will want to make sure he avoids potential legal action against him after leaving office, so obviously he has a clear interest in making sure that his person is the next president," said Mr Peter Mumford, South-east and South Asia practice head at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

"Pacquiao actually could have a shot even without Duterte's blessing," he added. "Parties are not that important in Philippine elections - it's about individuals."

A survey in April from Pulse Asia Research, one of the most credible in the Philippines, found Ms Sara Duterte to be the public's top choice to be the next president.

Mr Pacquiao was in a statistical tie for second with Mr Marcos Jr, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and Senator Grace Poe.

Back in 2016, when Mr Pacquiao allied with Mr Duterte, he defended the revival of the death penalty for heinous crimes and also backed the President's deadly campaign against illegal drugs, which saw thousands of extra-judicial killings.

But the boxer has lately sought to distinguish himself from the President. In late April, Mr Pacquiao said he had written a letter to the Chinese ambassador asking him to withdraw his country's ships in Philippine-claimed parts of the South China Sea, and later described Mr Duterte's response to the crisis as "lacking".

Mr Pacquiao also sent United States President Joe Biden a letter through the embassy asking to facilitate early delivery of Moderna's Covid-19 vaccines.

But Mr Pacquiao has not yet declared his intention to run in the May elections. Calls to his office were not returned.

During a speech to the Senate on Wednesday, he said the party should focus on the Covid-19 outbreak and power shutdowns in the capital, Manila, rather than politics. "Let's stop this attitude. Let's start politicking when it's election time. When it's not election time yet, let's do our job as public officials first," Mr Pacquiao said.

Mr Harry Roque, a spokesman for Mr Duterte, said yesterday that Mr Pacquiao is among at least five politicians the President is considering supporting in the next elections. He may also decide to back Mr Go, Mr Marcos, Mr Moreno or Ms Sara Duterte, though he still does not want his daughter to run for the top job, Mr Roque said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2021, with the headline 'Boxer looms as obstacle to Duterte's succession plans'. Subscribe