MANILA - Boxing legend Manny Pacquiao was ousted on Saturday (July 17) as head of President Rodrigo Duterte's political party, deepening a rift that could dampen the snowballing run of the President's daughter.
Mr Duterte himself was at the national assembly of the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Laban (PDP-Laban), where Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, his point man inside the party, was elected to replace Mr Pacquiao, a senator.
In the speech, which he read, Mr Duterte sought to keep the party united, as he appealed to Mr Pacquiao and his supporters to not lose sight of its goals.
"I'm urging all our party officers and members to remain focused on our mission of uplifting the quality of life of the Filipino people, especially now that they're grappling with the challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic," he said.
But, when veering away from the prepared text, he took potshots at Mr Pacquiao and Senator Koko Pimentel, a son of one of Laban's late founders.
"Pacquiao does not know anything. He just does what they tell him to do," he said, adding that Mr Pimentel was the one pulling the strings.
He said Mr Pimentel broke party rules when he stepped down as its president in December and then, instead of calling for a party vote, designated Mr Pacquiao as acting president.
Mr Duterte said Laban, under Mr Pimentel and his father, the late senator Aquilino Pimentel, had become an effete "father-son party" and he had to save it from irrelevance by running as its standard-bearer in the presidential election in 2016.
"I'm not trying to insult (Mr Pimentel), but the truth is he won't win in Cagayan de Oro city (his congressional district) even if he runs as a lowly district captain there," said Mr Duterte.
Mr Pacquiao was not at the party meeting. The eight-division world champion is in Los Angeles to train for a match with world welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr.
But his supporters called the national assembly a farce, illegal and had no force and effect.
Mr Pacquio did not strike back at Mr Duterte in a statement.
Instead, he slammed Mr Cusi's faction for putting politics over responding to recent reports that the very contagious Covid-19 Delta variant is already spreading across the Philippines.
Containing the variant "should be the priority of the government", he said.
"If Cusi and his allies think that politics should be prioritised over this, then go ahead. In the end, there is only one question that needs to be answered: Who will the Filipino people support?," he said.
Earlier, he sought to oust Mr Cusi from Laban for supporting Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, who is not a party member, in her bid to succeed her father.
Mr Pacquiao himself has his eye on the presidency, and he has been trying to rally Laban behind his bid despite purportedly being told by Mr Duterte to back down.
While the bitter feud rocking the party is revealing cracks in Mr Duterte's formidable base, it is unlikely to knock Ms Duterte-Carpio out of contention.
Pundits say it is just a slight hiccup that needs to be resolved now before the race officially starts in October, when those eyeing the presidency and vice-presidency will have to file their candidacies officially.
Ms Duterte-Carpio already has the backing of at least five political parties via a powerful coalition she heads.
A recent poll showed her leading by a wide margin as the candidate voters prefer to become the next president.
In that same survey, her father also emerged as the top candidate for vice-president, but in a more crowded field.
On Saturday, Mr Duterte again teased the possibility of a run for vice-president so that, among other things, he can get political immunity from charges being readied by his critics once he steps down as president next year.
"These idiots, they keep on threatening me with lawsuits… The law says, if you are vice-president, you are immune (from lawsuits). So then, I'll just run for vice-president," he said.