Manny for president? Many Filipinos will cheer him on

He is adored by millions, but boxer Pacquiao remains a political lightweight for now

Boxing legend Manny Pacquiao is coy whenever he is asked about wanting the presidency. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Boxing legend Manny Pacquiao is coy whenever he is asked about wanting the presidency. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEARING 40 and having just fought the biggest fight of his career, what is next for Manny Pacquiao?

As with many sports celebrities nearing the twilight of their sporting years, politics may offer him a stage for his second act. Many believe the presidency is his for the taking in 2022.

Not a few, however, also think politics may prove more than a match for the man dubbed "the national fist" and the "people's champion".

"Manny may be successful and popular as a boxer, but he knows next to nothing about governance," veteran columnist Neal Cruz wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

On paper, Pacquiao has been as mediocre as a lawmaker as he has been brilliant as a boxer.

He showed up for work in Congress as Representative for the southern province of Sarangani on only four days last year. He has filed a dozen Bills, but none has passed through committee.

In a scathing essay, former senator and sports aficionado Rene Saguisag said of Pacquiao: "If he had focused and stuck to boxing, I may have said nothing and left him alone, adored by millions because he has billions and, therefore, in our crassly materialistic society, a man of respect. But to me, he has disgraced the House (of Representatives)."

Politics in the Philippines - which often rewards the dirty and where the most effective tactic is usually to obfuscate the truth - could also corrode Pacquiao's lustre as quickly as he can throw a punch in the ring.

There are many holes in the Philippine boxing icon's story that his political adversaries could exploit.

The tax authorities in the US and the Philippines are investigating him for millions in alleged unpaid taxes.

There have been tales of womanising and gambling. He is said to have fathered a child with a billiard hall attendant.

Yet, with his backstory, his newfound religious fervour and common-man's charm, Pacquiao has forged a bond with the poor that will likely carry his political ambitions to whatever heights he wants. All he has to do is ask them to vote for him - and they will.

For the poor, his narrative - the boy who fought for pennies in the ring and then, by sheer will and talent, became a man who brought home US$100 million (S$133 million) for a day's work - is more compelling than a thousand laws and long speeches in Congress.

Pacquiao has been shrewd enough to parlay that adulation into a brand of politics that is far more effective than writing laws.

When he is home in his district, he is the generous king. He receives long lines. He doles out money to those who cannot pay their bills. He gives fellow boxers US$2,000 to help tide them over to their next fight.

He builds hospitals. He builds schools.

That is the kind of generosity that voters in the Philippines do not forget.

Pacquiao is coy whenever he is asked if he wants to be president some day. At 36, he is too young to run for president next year. He has to be at least 40 years old.

But Vice-President Jejomar Binay, the lead contender to become the next president, is already drafting Pacquiao to his senatorial ticket.

His run for the Senate is a done deal, said the Manila Bulletin's veteran sports writer Nick Giongco, who has been following Pacquiao's career for over 20 years.

But the presidency "is still a long way off", he said.


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