Manny Pacquiao is not the hero the Philippines needs
MANNY PACQUIAO is running for President of the Philippines. In a country obsessed with celebrity culture, the candidacy of its most famous son seems as inevitable as the following night. This is reason enough for caution.
Pacquiao, or “Pac-Man,” is rightly considered a hero. A lightning-fast boxer of exceptional aggressiveness and bravery, he is the only man to have held titles in eight different weight classes, and ranks among the all-time greats in his sport. The 42-year-old also has a fascinating life story, growing up in extreme poverty in the southern Philippines. Pacquiao presents himself as a champion of the poor and has been regularly celebrated for his philanthropy. What not to like?
A lot, in fact. There is his lack of legislative achievement as a member of Congress and a senator; his support for President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, a campaign of extrajudicial killings in which tens of thousands of people could be dead; its illiberal political positions on social issues. Whatever the personal qualities and good intentions of the candidate, a Pacquiao presidency would represent an extension of the strongman-savior syndrome that has held back the Philippines so much.
A small sticker serves to illustrate the nature of the country choice. The announcement of Pacquiao’s candidacy recalled a pair of interviews this writer attended during the 2010 campaign, and the contrast they evoked.
The first was with Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, in the family home in Quezon City. Although political royalty, Aquino was a reluctant candidate who entered the race on a wave of nostalgia for his mother, former President Corazon Aquino, after her death from cancer. Better known as Cory, she overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos during the “People’s Power” Revolution of 1986.
The informal atmosphere and the relative modesty of the surroundings were striking. The arrival of an unknown person with a suitcase could reasonably be regarded as a security risk, in a country where political violence is far from unknown (the father of Noynoy, critic of Marcos, was assassinated three years before the victory from his mother). No one seemed bothered. The newly arrived reporter from Hong Kong was ushered into the living room, suitcase and all. It was a warm space, decorated with still lifes of flowers and fruits painted by Cory Aquino.
As an interviewee, Aquino was not impressive. He did not exude charisma, nor did he demonstrate notable eloquence. In a follow-up chat in a back room, after the TV cameras left, he seemed more interested in talking about the inequities of his rival, real estate developer Manuel Villar, than painting a vision for the country he was about to lead.
The second interview was with Pacquiao, who then supported Villar. The office has learned that Pacquiao will be shooting a campaign ad at one of the mogul’s properties in downtown Manila, and that there may be an opportunity for a brief meeting once they’re done.
The gunmen on the door were the first clue that it was quite a different crowd. Once inside, several dreary hours ensued in which there was not much to do except study the bling that adorned the boxer’s entourage. No one was hostile, but the atmosphere was ostentatious. It couldn’t be further from the relaxed and low-key vibe of Maison Aquino.
Once free to speak, Pacquiao himself created a positive impression, appearing as a soft, humble and sincere voice as he described his campaign for Congress and his desire to help the poor.
Pacquiao’s approval was not enough for Villar. Aquino easily earned a reputation for probity and decency more than making up for his unattractive personality, and became a successful president. It is not an unblemished legacy, and his failure to improve infrastructure and fight law and order arguably enabled the shift to autocratic populism under Duterte. But the Philippine economy performed well during his tenure, the country gained investment status from rating agencies, and its ranking in Transparency International’s corruption index has improved. Aquino died in June at the age of 61.
There may be a lesson here. Reluctant leaders can sometimes make the most effective. Freed from intrusive egos, they may be more inclined to delegate to technocrats, more concerned with sound politics than personal glory, and less dogmatic. More charismatic leaders with a sense of mission can all too easily turn into demagogues. At worst, they can turn out to be distractions that satisfy a celebrity-loving people’s need for drama without addressing the most important underlying issues in development. The Philippines has already taken this route with the calamitous and short-lived presidency of Joseph Estrada, a former hardline film actor popular with the underprivileged who was later ousted and convicted of corruption.
Pacquiao isn’t a favorite in opinion polls, but it would be dangerous to overlook a candidate with his fame – or the vast wealth his boxing career has generated. At the same time, he’s not the only candidate with a ragged history of wealth, as noted by Mark Thompson, professor of politics and director of the Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong. Isko Moreno, a former garbage collector and (naturally) film actor, also has the benefit of a record of accomplishments as mayor of Manila, where he “can highlight the skill he displayed during the COVID pandemic. -19, ”Thompson said.
After breaking up with Duterte, the greater importance of Pacquiao’s candidacy might be to divide the votes of the ruling PDP-Laban party and thus allow a return to a more progressive political agenda. It’s a split decision that could be the boxer’s biggest service to his country.