Philippines: Boxer/Senator Manny Pacquiao to Lead Rodrigo Duterte’s Political Party

Manny Pacquiao gets ready for the start of his WBA welterweight title fight against Keith Thurman at MGM Grand Garden Arena on July 20, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)
Steve Marcus/Getty Images

Philippine Sen. Manny Pacquiao, one of history’s most successful boxing champions, on Wednesday became the president of PDP-Laban, the ruling political party of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Pacquiao has hinted at having presidential aspirations in the recent past and may appear on the ballot in the 2022 election. Complicating his potential endorsement from the president, who he initially did not support in 2016 but to whom he has since become close, are reports that Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter, is also considering a presidential bid.

The elder Duterte, battling chronic pain and at age 75, is not expected to continue a career in politics; the Philippine constitution only allows presidents to remain in power for one six-year term.

Pacquiao first entered the Philippine legislature as a senator representing Sarangani in 2016, running a campaign based in his Evangelical Christian values and echoing Duterte’s messaging on punishing violent crime and drug trafficking. He has supported Duterte’s attempts to reintroduce capital punishment into the Philippine legal system and supported the expansion of social programs such as universal health care and internet access.

Pacquiao promised “firm but fair” leadership in his remarks at the swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday.

“Fair but firm, this is the kind of leadership that you can expect from Manny Pacquiao PDP-Laban Party President,” Pacquiao said. “To be given this rare opportunity to lead the PDP-Laban is an immense honor and responsibility. By God’s grace, I will not waste this platform that you have entrusted me.”

“Sen. Pacquiao will bring not only more energy to the party in the sense of expanding its membership, but also more discipline to the current members in the sense of inculcating in them the concept of principles-based politics,” Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, the outgoing president of PDP-Laban, told reporters during Pacquiao’s swearing-in on Wednesday. Pimentel will continue on in the party as its executive vice-chairman.

Pimentel reportedly added that Pacquiao would use his role to “start educating the Party and the public about his advocacy on peace and Economics” and also engage in “deepening” international ties with like-minded parties.

PDP-Laban is considered a left-wing party due to its support for heavy government spending on social programs for the poor, including in the areas of health care, education, and infrastructure. Under Duterte, the party has taken a strong stance in defense of law enforcement, including supporting harsh punishments for drug criminals, which would put it at odds with a Western political party.

Among the most prominent examples of Pacquiao’s support for Duterte’s law and order policies is a bill the champion sponsored in the Senate to restore capital punishment for particularly objectionable crimes and his support in 2017 for Duterte imposing martial law in Marawi, a city on Duterte’s and Pacquiao’s home island of Mindanao that had been overrun by Islamic State jihadists. At its height, the Islamic State allegedly attempted to plan Pacquiao’s abduction, given his prominence as a Christian public figure.

“We need to be grateful because we have a firm, strong president who is fighting these problems,” Pacquiao said at the time. “From my heart, I support the declaration of the president.”

Pacquiao did not support Duterte’s presidential run initially, though Duterte supported Pacquiao’s run for the Senate.

“Even if he is not on my side, kindly support Pacman. He is my friend. We are both from Mindanao,” Duterte said during Pacquiao’s campaign.

Following Duterte’s election, Pacquiao changed his position, vocally supporting the president.

“God put him there for a reason, for purpose — to discipline the people,” he said in September 2016. “In the past administrations, people didn’t respect the law, the leader, the authorities. … What Duterte is trying to do is let the people know — and put it in their hearts and minds — that you need to respect the law of the land.”

Pacquiao noted on that occasion that he had a long history with Duterte and that the president had been a “respectful person, a hospitable person, a friendly person.” “He helped me a lot,” Pacquiao told Reuters.

Duterte has similarly supported Pacquiao, publicly stating he would like to see the fighter run for president.

“I told him, while it was just the two of us, ‘I want to make you president,'” Duterte told the Philippine Inquirer in 2017.

The issue of Pacquiao’s potential presidential run surfaced following his assumption to the presidency of his political party. The boxer refused to answer definitively when reporters asked about his intentions.

“In terms of politics, let’s not talk about politics,” Pacquiao said, in the nation’s signature mix of English and Tagalog. “We should focus on helping our hungry countrymen, the poor and have no shelter [sic]. The elections are still far away, let’s not talk about it.”

The executive director of the party, Ron Munsayac, similarly told reporters, “it’s still too early to talk about politics and the 2022 elections. We have a pandemic to deal with and kababayans [fellow Filipinos] affected by consecutive calamities to help.”

While a full-time senator, Pacquiao has not retired from boxing. Speculation of a potential presidential run has occurred simultaneously with speculation regarding his next fight. Promoters in the Pacquiao camp have suggested that he may one day soon fight mixed martial arts celebrity Conor McGregor, who has dabbled unsuccessfully in boxing. Bob Arum, the head of Top Rank, boxing’s most prominent promotor, said last month that Pacquiao may soon fight an actual boxer, Terence Crawford, in 2021. The fight was reportedly in the works before the Chinese coronavirus pandemic halted plans for crowd-drawing events.

Arum has also claimed that Pacquiao told him he would run in the 2022 election, which Pacquiao denied.

Pacquiao last fought in July 2019.

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