What will Manny Pacquiao do now?

By: John Nery - @jnery_newsstand - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | June 01,2021 - 08:00 AM

With all the maneuvering for next year’s elections, the cracks in the Duterte governing coalition are widening.

Consider the situation of Sen. Manny Pacquiao. The boxing all-time great is a middling politician of mediocre achievement, but he is “masa,” moneyed, and motivated. The 2022 elections will be the first presidential poll where he will be old enough to run for president himself. If he wins his fight against world welterweight champion Errol Spence in August, add both massive media mileage and momentum to his set of advantages as a candidate in May. But instead of a warm welcome or a protective embrace from the presidential palace, this close ally of President Duterte’s is taking hits on all sides—and the hits are coming from the President himself or other close allies.

President Duterte’s decision to support the unusual and procedurally irregular convening of the PDP-Laban’s National Council, which took place yesterday in Cebu, over Pacquiao’s clear objections, was a direct affront to Pacquiao, who is the party president. (Or at least he is, at the time of writing. Having swiftly replaced the party secretary-general by presuming that seat vacant, the members of the National Council under the leadership of party vice-chair Alfonso Cusi, the energy secretary, can just as easily depose Pacquiao. It may, in fact, only be a matter of time.)

The reason for the internal coup of the official administration party on record is apparent: Davao City Mayor Inday Sara Duterte is running for president next year, in a bid to succeed her father and to protect him from legal complications, and she needs a national political party.

It’s important to note who showed up, whether physically or on Zoom, at the National Council meeting: Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, who is party executive vice president; Senators Francis Tolentino and Bato dela Rosa (who earlier said he would be too busy in the Senate to attend); Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez; congressmen including Ronaldo Zamora and Joey Salceda, and governors including Ben Evardone and Gwen Garcia.

Not exactly a list of party veterans.

Rather, this is a large chunk of the governing coalition who are interested in continuity, violating the party’s own rules to effectively remove Pacquiao from any real power.

I recall that Lito Banayo, the President’s original political strategist, already predicted the end of Pacquiao’s party presidency last March; he revealed that the President spoke to Pacquiao on March 3, to ask him to “lower his political sights for 2022.” The heavy-handed manner in which Cusi et al. reasserted control over PDP-Laban must mean either that Pacquiao refused the President’s request or that he hasn’t made up his mind yet. (Here’s a reminder, however, that we must take the columns of a political operator with a sack of salt; in that same piece, Banayo summed up the directive to Pacquiao as “pahinog ka muna sa Senado”—literally, ripen in the Senate—while promoting the idea of a Bong-Go-for-president, Rudy-Duterte-for-vice-president tandem. But Go was elected to the Senate in 2019, three years after Pacquiao. If Go is ripe for the presidency, after only two years in the Senate, why not Pacquiao? The definition of ripeness here must depend on the tree of political opportunism.)

But Pacquiao, from all accounts, is a proud man. Millions of Filipinos know his background; it is a true rags-to-the-Ritz story. This takeover of his party will not sit well with him.

The masterminds behind the takeover must have calculated that he will eventually agree to settle for another run at the Senate; it will not do to have him serve as Sara’s running mate, since they are both from Mindanao. But at 42, Pacquiao cannot depend on many more fights, to reinforce his appealing narrative to the masses and to raise more money for his political campaigns. The 2022 presidential election would likely be his best chance at becoming president; he can certainly cut into Sara’s Mindanao base, and hold his own against Bongbong Marcos and Isko Moreno in Luzon. The Cusi takeover must assume that the lack of a national political party to support his candidacy will be fatal to Pacquiao’s chances; recent history is much more ambiguous.

Although outmatched in the Senate, in terms of debating skill or alliance-building, Pacquiao has started to become much more assertive. Last week, he criticized Sen. Pia Cayetano for disrespecting him on a matter involving a priority legislation of his, and last year he pushed back against Alan Peter Cayetano, then the Speaker, when he defended his proposal to renew the ABS-CBN network’s congressional franchise. To be sure, there’s more to the running feud with the Cayetanos, involving local politics. And the Cayetanos are not fond of a Sara candidacy; attacking Pacquiao, a clear rival to Sara, is not in the Cayetano family’s interest on the national level. And yet here we are.

Where Pacquiao will be depends on his next steps. If he sues the Cusi wing of the party, he will tie himself up in litigation possibly for years, in the same way Mar Roxas had to fight Lito Atienza for control of the Liberal Party. If he organizes a new party, he will not enjoy the same advantage Fidel Ramos did when he bolted LDP and formed Lakas: the support of the incumbent president. The 1Sambayan convenors have already rejected his inclusion in the political opposition’s selection process. The options for him are to join another political party, if he remains popular and viable as a presidential candidate. But if all he can point to, when he runs, is his personal fame and his (admittedly historic) boxing career, the other major parties may call it a draw.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand; email: [email protected]

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TAGS: 2022 elections, Bong Go for President, Convening of the PDP-Laban's National Council, Duterte governing coalition, Lito Banayo, Rudy Duterte for vice president, Sara Duterte, Sen. Manny Pacquiao

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