Thrilla in Manila: Duterte vs. Pacquiao

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Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking Philippine president, ignores his political opponents. But this time, he’s going after a popular rival who speaks quietly but can throw a punch or two himself: boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao. With less than 10 months of next year’s presidential election, a recent public feud between the two could usher in an epic battle for the top post.


“Pacman” is immensely famous at home and abroad. He is considered the best pound-for-pound boxer of all time having won world championship titles in more weight classes than anyone. Additionally, Pacquiao is a rare unifying force in the Philippines: Guerrilla groups and the military usually call for a truce and the whole country comes to a standstill to watch him fight. After emerging from abject poverty to become a global icon and national celebrity, Pacquiao served two terms as a congressman and, in 2016, was elected a senator.

From Duterte ally to enemy. Just a few weeks ago, Duterte mentioned Pacquiao as a potential successor, in part because he supported Duterte’s controversial war on drugs and anti-terrorism law. But in early June, when rumors of a Pacquiao presidential run began to circulate, the two fell apart in a very dramatic fashion.

Pacquiao first called out Duterte for being lenient with China after failing to stand up to Xi Jinping in the face of the Chinese maritime militia presence in waters claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea. Then he accused the government of pocketing more than $ 200 million in pandemic relief funds. Duterte, as expected, lashed out at Pacquiao, urging the senator to study foreign policy and daring him to show evidence of corruption.

Duterte-Duterte versus Pacquiao. Over the weekend, Pacquiao was ousted as leader of Duterte’s ruling PDP-Laban party in revenge for criticizing the president. In Philippine politics – where personality trumps ideology and political parties serve as mere vehicles for candidates – Pacquiao’s impeachment does not mean he cannot run for president. If he does, however, it will be against the will of the powerful pro-administration politicians who dominate both houses of parliament.

In the Philippines, the only country in the world to separately elect a president and vice-president for single terms, allies of Duterte’s party want him to run for vice-president alongside his daughter Sara, current mayor of Davao, his father’s hometown. (Fun fact: Sara Duterte also loves a good unarmed fight.)

Strengths and weaknesses. For Aries Arugay, professor of political science at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, Pacquiao’s fame and importance are his best assets as a presidential candidate. Its tale of rags to riches can be very powerful as a political campaign because it “resonates well.” [with] a country with generalized socio-economic inequalities and a policy of exclusion. ”

“The Filipino electorate historically loves its politicians with grounded, authentic and relatable narratives that can be converted into ‘eligibility.’ Its weakness is its relative lack of political experience,” says Arugay, who warns that Pacquiao’s turnaround on Duterte “Can be a scourge, because the Filipinos could interpret this as his political ambition and therefore as a betrayal”.

Pacquiao’s chances. Although at present the Duterte-Duterte ticket tops the polls while Pacquiao is in single digits, he is the only presidential hopeful with enough wealth to self-fund his campaign and name recognition to challenge the formidable daughter-father team. Pacquiao can appeal to Duterte’s poor voter base and, being from the same region as the president, erode Duterte’s strong support in vote-rich Mindanao.

In addition, Pacquiao recently took a look at what Arugay calls “fruits at hand”: animosity towards China and the fight against corruption. First, China’s net confidence rating among Filipinos is currently a dismal -36. Second, poor Filipinos could turn against Duterte if Pacquiao offers credible evidence of the president’s alleged involvement in skimming funds meant to help those hardest hit by the COVID-induced economic wreck.

He might even rally the highly fragmented and predominantly liberal opposition despite Pacquiao’s deeply conservative views on issues such as LGBT rights or the death penalty. Even if it “reeks of despair,” Arugay points out, “there have been more foreign bed mates” in the previous Filipino elections.

What does his candidacy teach us about the state of Philippine politics? While this is hardly surprising, says Arugay, “the presidential qualification bar not only remains low but has in fact become lower.” The country, he adds, is “trapped in a political hell, in which citizens have to choose only between inheritance (dynasties) but incompetent, and fame but politically inept”.

Duterte worries about Pacquiao’s victory because he will not have immunity from prosecution as vice president (it is common for new Filipino presidents to investigate their predecessors in the months after taking office). Only his daughter would presumably give Duterte a free pass on corruption, human rights abuses or shady deals with China.

Stay tuned for August 21, when the boxing legend returns to the ring for the first time in two years. If Pacquiao, 42, beats an American fighter 11 years his junior, don’t be surprised if Filipinos desperate for good news amid the pandemic give the boxer-turned-senator a major bump in the polls – which Pacquiao could walk to. at the end at the Malacañang Palace next year.

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