Pacquiao: Unblinking in the fight of his life
(Ninth of a series)
The poor boy from General Santos City who became the world’s only eight-division boxing champion is a fighter through and through.
And the challenges that presidential candidate Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao faced head-on in the past months proved that he is not backing down from the greatest fight of his life.
The 43-year-old senator has had to parry questions on his dismal attendance record in the House as a representative of his native Sarangani and his derogatory remarks on the LGBTQ community, as well as the rift in the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) that he once headed.
His intelligence has been derided, and speculation that he would eventually back out of the presidential race has hounded him since the campaign period began in February.
Pacquiao’s campaign manager, tycoon Salvador “Buddy” Zamora, was sufficiently moved to slam the “below the belt” tactics to discredit his ward through “rumors, lies and fake news.”
But ever the fighter, the man deemed as the world’s best southpaw in the ring is unfazed. ‘If God tells me’
In March, the standard-bearer of the party Promdi (or Progressive Movement for the Devolution of Initiatives) told reporters for the umpteenth time: “You all know Manny Pacquiao. I don’t back out from a fight, inside and outside the ring. The only thing that will make me decide to withdraw is if God gives me the conviction not to push through with it … If there is a conviction shown to me by God, I will withdraw even if it’s two days or one day before Election Day.”
“When I decided to run, I vowed to finish it until the end…” he added.
Pacquiao could have been PDP-Laban’s standard-bearer were he not ousted as party president in July 202i by a faction led by Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi. The party saw its membership grow to over 100,000 after then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte ran as its standard-bearer in 2016 and won the presidency.
Nevertheless, Pacquiao has maintained that he is still party president, with Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III as party chair. The issue has yet to be resolved by the Commission on Elections.
Cusi’s faction has since endorsed Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte as its official candidates for president and vice president.
But Pacquiao has not blinked. In March, he pointed out that the PDP-Laban was formed in the 1980s to fight the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, the father of the front-runner in the presidential preelection surveys.
“Maybe Cusi forgot that PDP-Laban was created against the Marcos regime. To members of PDP-Laban, let us not follow Cusi. PDP-Laban was formed against the Marcoses, and it will now align with Marcos. That is a slap on the faces of PDP-Laban members,” Pacquiao said then.
He said he was not “picking a fight” with Cusi but that the latter should “think it over carefully if he really cares” for the PDP-Laban as a party for “the people, the poor, the Filipinos.” ‘Just the 2 of us’
As for Marcos Jr. and his refusal to attend debates and forums, Pacquiao thought nothing about issuing a challenge.
“He might be shy because there are many of us attending [the debates]. It’s okay with me if we debate, just the two of us. Let’s see his platform, my platform… If he is having second thoughts in attending debates, a one-on-one might be better, for the country to know his platform, my platform,” Pacquiao said of Marcos Jr. in March.
In April, he publicly urged the Marcoses to pay their P203-billion estate tax liability, pointing out that he himself was able to “fix” his own tax problems. Said Pacquiao: “We need to pay up. Be honest. If the Supreme Court has made a decision, then there’s no one above the law. … Maybe he or they are thinking that they are above the law. Maybe they are thinking, ‘We are the law.’ Because during martial law, we have to remember that there was no such thing as laws. They were the law then.”
As for those citing his absences during his two terms as congressman, he said that they were harping on an “old issue” and that they should do research “on how many laws I have passed and my attendance record as a senator.”
“They are just using that because they have nothing [with which] to discredit me. That’s the mindset of pretentious genius politicians because they have vested interests in the government,” he said. Last December, Pacquiao said he was busy with projects concerning free housing and sustainable livelihood for his constituents using his own money.
He has spent much time meeting with both leaders and residents in urban and rural areas, and is unperturbed by local officials’ endorsements of his rivals.
‘Our own crowd’
Pacquiao climbed to No. 3 in the latest presidential-preference survey of Pulse Asia. He was consistent at No. 4 among the 10 candidates, but he brushed off that ranking by pointing to the crowds braving the heat and long hours for a chance to take a selfie or exchange handshakes or fist bumps with him.
He is optimistic that he has his “own share” of supportive local officials even if he does not actively seek their endorsement.
In an interview with the Inquirer in February, Zamora said the throngs of people showing up at sorties were there to genuinely support Pacquiao, and not because they were paid to do so.
“We have our own crowd. Even if we are unannounced, we can gather a crowd of thousands … at a certain place… But we also pay courtesy calls on the local officials,” the soft-spoken campaign manager said.
Pacquiao is also confident that Filipinos from Class D and E would identify with his rags-to-riches story and believe in his promise of ending corruption and providing free housing.In a “gathering of believers” at the Pinaglabanan Shrine in San Juan City late in April, Pimentel described Pacquiao as a “master planner” for the country and its poor.
His HEALTH (housing, education, aid, livelihood, transportation and utilities, and health) platform of governance is actually a 22-point plan to be implemented if he is elected president.
Pacquiao’s key promises include building a “megaprison” for public officials and civil servants convicted of corruption, as well as stamping out corruption in order to generate up to P1 trillion in savings from the national budget, which can be used to fund social service programs, especially his planned free housing for the homeless, the informal settlers and the poor.
He has also promised to allot P400 billion a year for the free housing program that will be an extension of the “Pacman housing projects” that he began in Sarangani.
At his campaign headquarters in Makati City, Pacquiao’s staff keeps a stock of ID cards for those who will sign up for free housing. The cards are distributed during campaign sorties.
In running for president, Pacquiao styles himself as a “nontraditional” politician who does not make promises to court votes, but banks on his record as a philanthropist who has done good using his own money.
His rock-star status and his affable nature form part of his charm as a presidential candidate whose “God-given mission” is to lead Filipinos out of poverty.
His campaign spiels are peppered with anecdotes from his impoverished youth and with biblical passages, which his audiences lap up, indicating that he is accepted as an “everyman” that they can identify with.
Whether in the company of local officials or government employees, market vendors, tricycle drivers, or residents welcoming him into their towns, Pacquiao is still very much the hero endearingly called the “Pambansang Kamao” (National Fist).
His constant invocation of divine will shows how he was changed from a man of vices into a born-again Christian in constant engagement with like-minded pastors of Christian groups.
In April, Zamora said the support of Christian groups and those Filipinos who had signed up for Pacquiao’s promise of free housing would “carry us through” and “deliver the votes for us.”
In an earlier interview with the Inquirer, Zamora said: “If it’s God’s will for him to win, he will … We hope the Philippines chooses a righteous leader who will do well for the country and make us proud. Manny Pacquiao is more famous than the Philippines; he was the one that put us on the map.”
The athlete-politician who has thrived in the studied violence and pain of his sport is probably the most God-invoking contender in the presidential race, drawing his “own crowd” on the hustings with an authentic rags-to-riches story. Down the homestretch, the senator saw his survey ranking improve—though to a far third—and warned of “chaos” if the current No. 1 ultimately wins. Though retired from the ring, candidate Manny Pacquiao doesn’t pull his punches.