Thrilla in Manila

Manny Pacquiao just won a seat in the Phillipine congress. But will he be KO’d by corruption?

According to early news reports, world-champion boxer Manny Pacquiao looks like a shoo-in to win a congressional seat in his native Philippines. Back in December, Rafe Bartholomew wrote that the fighter’s fans should pray for him to lose. “By running for office,” Bartholomew argued, “Pacquiao might increase his fortune while destroying his reputation.” The original article is reprinted below.

Last week, boxer Manny Pacquiao donned red spandex for an upcoming superhero flick, filed candidacy papers for next year’s congressional elections in the Philippines, and agreed to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a 2010 mega-bout that should net him an eight-figure payday. The Filipino world champion’s multitasking has become as mythic as his fists, which last month won him a record seventh title in seven weight classes. After tenderizing Miguel Cotto’s face over 12 virtuoso rounds last month, Pacquiao headed to a pre-arranged concert and sang “La Bamba” for a crowd of jubilant Filipino fans.

Sports journalists on this side of the Pacific tend to treat Pacquiao’s political aspirations as one in a list of colorful quirks. The boxer travels with dozens of lackeys who jockey for the privilege of fluffing his rice; his hero film Wapakman opens Christmas Day; he croons monster ballads. With each victory, his cult of celebrity in the Philippines grows and legends accumulate. When Pacquiao fights, they say, crime rates flatline, government troops and Muslim rebels lay down their arms, and people’s hearts actually stop. Executive offices and universities scramble to confer hokey titles upon the champion—an honorary doctorate, ambassador for peace and understanding, special assistant on intelligence matters to the Department of Justice. A run for Congress would seem to fit this motif: generous, goofy superstar makes a go at politics. But Pacquiao’s political ambitions are no joke, and a win for “Pacman” in the 2010 elections could be very bad news for the Philippines—far more devastating than a mere loss in a boxing match.

This won’t be Pacquiao’s first run for office. In 2007, he lost a race for the House seat in the South Cotabato district that contains his hometown, General Santos City. Pundits floated the romantic notion that Pacquiao’s fans voted for his opponent, Darlene Antonino-Custodio, because they didn’t want to see the Pambansang Kamao—the national fist—become ungloved. That explanation assumes that Philippine elections actually express the will of the people, which, all too often, they don’t. Contests, especially local ones, are won through patronage and political machinery. Campaign funds trickle from candidates to local officials. Influence is peddled, and the more powerful pol usually wins. Antonino-Custodio’s family has had a political foothold in the province for more than 20 years. Pacquiao and his monumental popularity were no match for an established political clan.

Next May, Pacquiao plans to contest a congressional seat in the neighboring province of Sarangani. This time he will challenge Roy Chiongbian, also a scion of an entrenched dynasty. Perhaps the fighter’s mushrooming global celebrity and rapidly multiplying wealth—earlier this year Forbes named him the world’s sixth-highest-paid athlete—will now be enough to push him over the hump.

Pacman says he’s pursuing a political career to “help the people who are suffering.” If that’s his real goal, then running for office is the worst way to achieve it. Elected office in the Philippines has historically served little purpose other than to enrich those who hold it, and neither Pacquiao (nor even his superhero alter ego Wapakman) can do much to change that. The roll call of bandits running for office in 2010 includes Joseph “Erap” Estrada, the former president who was deposed in 2001, convicted of plunder, and then pardoned by current head of state Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; madame president herself, who topped a 2007 survey of most-corrupt leaders, ahead of Estrada and even Ferdinand Marcos; and a candidate who calls himself Nanjananan and views the presidency as a stepping stone to his destiny, “emperor of the world.” Philippine politics is not just a wretched racket but a perilous one. Sarangani, where Pacquiao is running, is a half day’s drive from Maguindanao, the province where at least 57 people were executed in an election-related mass murder two weeks ago. Elections are known to be less bloody in Pacquiao’s province, but with all the money at stake in these contests, any district can be deadly.

By running for office, Pacquiao might increase his fortune while destroying his reputation.

There’s comfort in the hope that the boxer might become one of his country’s few honest public servants, but most signs point to the contrary. His political mentors exemplify the term trapo, or “traditional politician,” a contraction that doubles in Tagalog as “dirty rag.” Luis “Chavit” Singson, one of Pacquiao’s confidantes, was recently described as a “warlord” in an Agence France-Presse story and has admitted delivering millions of dollars in gambling kickbacks to Estrada during his presidency. Singson now occupies a high position in Arroyo’s government, and Pacquiao—should he win—would be expected to support the ruling party. Recent reports suggest that Arroyo, who is running for congress because term limits require her to step down as president, might try to ram through constitutional changes that would morph the government into a parliamentary system with Prime Minister Arroyo in charge. If Pacquiao were to cast one of the deciding votes in this scheme, his fans would likely be crestfallen. (Most Filipinos oppose Arroyo’s attempts to extend her reign.)

Pacquiao isn’t the first athlete to run for office in the Philippines, and he wouldn’t be the first to lose his luster. Robert Jaworski was Manny Pacquiao when the young Pacman was still selling doughnuts to make a living. Jaworski was the country’s biggest basketball star, a player so legendary that, more than 10 years after he left the Philippine Basketball Association to join the Senate, his former team is still the crowd favorite. As a legislator, however, Jaworski couldn’t maintain his reputation. When he failed to take a stand against Estrada’s embezzlement in the then-president’s 2001 impeachment trial, the heroic point guard looked like every other politician. Voters might not expect scruples from most pols, but they demanded it from Jaworski. They weren’t just constituents but fans, and they equated Jaworski’s competitive success with virtue. After a single six-year term, Jaworski wasn’t re-elected, and no basketball player has made it to the Senate since.

If Pacquiao claims victory at the ballot box next year, a similar fate likely awaits him. It’s hard to see that as anything but a tragedy. I lived in the Philippines from 2005-08, and I watched Pacquiao’s fights in packed movie theaters, on 13-inch screens in streetside snack bars, and on televisions set up for the public in open-air gymnasiums. I walked through my neighborhood between rounds and heard the sportscasters’ exhortations from every open window. The hysteria that consumes this country during Pacquiao fights is real. In a nation ravaged by corruption, lashed by typhoons, and beaten down by poverty, nothing unites and elates the populace like Manny Pacquiao.

When the great champion becomes a politician, however, Filipinos may lose their conquering hero. Savor this go-round with Floyd Mayweather and delight in every karaoke performance of “La Bamba.” Manny Pacquiao is one of the greatest boxers and most lovable athletes of this lifetime, and in six months he may just be another crooked politician.

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