MANILA, Philippines — Famed Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao is planning his next knockout, but this time it won't be in the boxing ring.
Instead, he is running for a Congressional seat in the May Philippine national elections. With many of his most ardent supporters divided over whether they want him to fight outside the ring, it could be his toughest bout yet.
To the Filipino people, Pacquiao is more than just a legend in the boxing world — he is their hero. Considered as the pound-for-pound best fighter the world has seen, he has made the Philippines proud.
Pacquiao’s fan base crosses economic, social and religious divisions, uniting the country in an unprecedented way. Having risen from abject poverty to being the only world boxing champion across seven divisions, his life story provides inspiration to a country where 40 percent of the population lives off less than $2 a day.
Although many believe he has yet to reach the peak of his career, Pacquiao feels boxing is not his ultimate calling. His transition from fighter to politician is driven by a desire to improve the world he grew up in.
“I wanna help poor people and I want to be a good public servant. All my life I see a lot of politicians always saying promises but didn’t do their promise. I am a real person, I want to be honest to the people who want me to serve,” Pacquiao said in a recent interview at a hotel in Manila.
If elected to the House of Representatives for Sarangani, the province on the southern island of Mindanao where his wife is from and where he also grew up, he says he will focus on the most essential needs of the people. “My concern is to give them a work, livelihood and of course care for their health and school, free school. You know people don’t actually want to get money by not working. What they need is to have a work everyday to support their families,” says Pacquiao.
He also hopes to be an ambassador of peace, promoting stability and order in an area that has long suffered from political, ethnic and religious violence. Pacquiao explains, “I can help talk to them about the problem and explain we don’t need to kill each other. They are doing bad things because they don’t have communication with the government.”
This is not Pacquiao’s first step into the political ring. He ran for Congress in 2007 but was defeated. In the past, the Filipinos have shown a tendency to both elect their “heroes” into political office, and expect their politicians to act as “saviors.” The fact that Pacquiao’s immense popularity did not automatically translate into votes hints that Pacquiao has actually transcended the status of a hero — become something of an icon that the populace feels the need to protect and preserve.
Most voters agree that even the most honest and well-intentioned public servants often end up being tainted by the country’s deeply corrupt political system. Pacquiao’s image is clean, but becoming a politician could change this, and voters aren't sure they want to take the risk.
Pacquiao however, sees the situation differently. “Right now if you say 'politician' it means 'dirty.' Why don’t we change that image — so that a politician, that is a helpful person,” he said.
Local business owner Clint Esman shares some of the hesitations echoed by many fans. Although the boxer’s worldwide popularity would help bring needed investors into his province, Esman worries about Pacquiao’s lack of political experience.
“Manny knows nothing about making laws and is surrounded by people who know politics and maybe they have ulterior motives. Maybe they can manipulate Manny on what to do but sometimes its most likely for their personal interest. And Manny is a good-hearted man — I am afraid he is too nice to say no,” Esman explains.
Esman believes that the best way Pacquiao can help the people is by staying out of politics, and continuing to give financial help to the projects he believes are most needed. “Manny’s popularity makes him already stronger than a politician. It’s better for him to stay as a common person like us. Maybe he can be an instrument to reach out to people who needs help the most,” Esman said.
Still, there are many voters who believe in Pacquiao’s dream of serving the people. Alex Magno, a political science professor at the University of Philippines, explains some of the layers influencing voter behavior.
For hundreds of years, the archipelago nation's 7,150 islands have been a place where each island community basically fends for itself, and were organized around a strong man or "datu,” who provided protection for the whole community. He was relied upon to be better, stronger, faster than anyone else. “Anybody who wants to be elected must show himself to be both strong and generous,” Magno said.
In a country where there is a great distrust in government institutions, choosing personality over platform is something both necessary and practical. “Congressmen are not seen as people who legislate but as Robin Hoods who bring goodies from national resources to the locality to benefit his community. Pacquiao is running to be a good king for his little district, by bringing more services, infrastructure and investment,” Magno explained.
With a population that is more than 80 percent Catholic, religion adds another dimension to the concept of leadership. “Catholicism believes that saints broker on behalf with God. Politicians see themselves as brokering for the helpless. This imagery is how politics operates from its grass roots,” Magno added.
For supporters such as local mayor Corazon Sunga Grafilo, being able to identify with Pacquiao’s “downhearted beginnings” is enough reason to support him.
Grafilo explained that “the Filipino peoples are fond of simple, humble persons who they can go to and ask if they need help. Certainly he will understand because he came from that kind of life.”
She also feels that not being a “true politician” can be a benefit. Although aware that the system might corrupt the man, she credits Pacquiao’s strong faith in God for keeping her optimistic. “Why cant we give him a chance?” she asked.
Pacquiao credits hard work, discipline and a strong belief in God for his success, and plans to lead by example. He says he wants to "show everybody that we can do everything if we work together, believe in God, in ourselves and always think positive."
This boxer has taken many chances before, which have brought him and his supporters’ unexpected success. The Philippines will soon see if he can do it again.