A Brief Look at Manny Pacquiao's Political Career

Briggs Seekins@BriggsfighttalkFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2011

A Brief Look at Manny Pacquiao's Political Career

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    In the American media, Manny Pacquiao's status as a Filipino Congressman is almost always noted but rarely discussed in any depth. It is mostly treated as just another colorful detail of his Horatio Alger-like rise as a folk hero.

    I would even say there is something bordering on patronizing about the way American writers tend to treat Pacquiao's political career. If an American athlete, in his early 30's and still very much an active competitor, were to simultaneously run for and get elected to the U.S. Congress there would be a great deal of hand-wringing and serious soul-searching about what that said about the state of our political health.

    But there is only a kind of amused chortling over the fact that the voters in the Philippines, among the poorest and historically most oppressed people on the planet, should look with such hope towards such an unlikely political savior.  

    Well, this is Bleacher Report, not The Economist, and I am more meathead than sophisticated political analyst. But if I know one thing as a boxing writer it is this: People love to read just about anything regarding Pacman. And his in-ring greatness aside, his status as a political figure may yet prove to be his most significant legacy.   

A Slap-Dash, Superficial History of the Philippines

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    Prior to Spanish colonization in the late 16th century, the archipelago that comprises the Philippines existed as a disparate group of small tribal confederations, principalities, rajahnates and Muslim sultanates. The Spanish conquest established the first unified political status for the Philippines and the beginnings of a national identity.

    In 1896, a revolution broke out against Spanish rule. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States Navy assisted the rebel cause. The Spanish were driven out and the rebels established the first Philippine Republic.

    But the Western powers had other ideas about the future of the Pacific. The Treaty of Paris transferred control of the Philippines from the Spanish to the U.S. The U.S. set up a military government in August of 1898, following the capture of Manila.

    The American military was actively engaged in occupying the Philippines and suppressing the insurrection—there for the entire first decade of the 20th century and some change—up until about 1913, with extremely large numbers of civilian casualties resulting.

    This is one of the most controversial, oft-forgotten periods of American history. At the time, Mark Twain was probably as well known for opposing the U.S. campaign in the Philippines as he was for making funny quips about golf.

    The U.S. did not grant full independence to the Philippines until 1946, following the brutal Japanese occupation during World War II.

The Post-Colonial Philippines: Dictatorship, Corruption and Massacres

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    The history of independent Filipino rule is first of all the history of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. Marcos achieved full political control of the country in 1965 and for the next 20 years ruled like a kind of cheap, flashy gangster; murdering rivals and robbing the country blind.

    In a nation full of desperately poor people, Marcos and his wife Imelda set a new standard for obscene conspicuous consumption. Prior to Sex and the City, it was Imelda Marcos, and not Carrie Bradshaw, who was the stock pop culture figure of comparison for any woman who was obsessed with buying lots of shoes.

    The Marcos' were peacefully deposed in 1986 and replaced by Cory Aquino, the widow of one of Marcos' murdered political opponents. The moment was widely celebrated internationally, much like the recent Egyptian uprising. 

    It was a promising new start, but the 25 years since have not gone well. Political corruption has only become more entrenched and violent as the years have gone by. In 2009 in Maguindanao Province, 57 people were massacred when they tried to file a certificate of candidacy for Esmael Mangudadatu to challenge incumbent Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan.

    The Philippines remains among the world's poorest nations, with 40 percent of the people living on less than two dollars a day. Modern development still does not exist in much of the country. While the Philippines is overwhelmingly a Catholic nation, they have been challenged by Islamic terrorists and rebels for years.

    This is the political situation that the neophyte Pacquiao has chosen to thrust himself into. Any significant and long-lasting improvement he can manage to deliver to his fellow citizens will represent a far greater achievement than anything he could ever accomplish in the ring.    

Manny Pacquiao's Popularity in the Philippines: No American Equivalent

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    No American sports star has ever been elevated in cultural significance to the degree that Manny Pacquiao has in the Philippines. He stars in movies and records albums. His wife, Jinkee, is among the nation's most admired women.  

    The only near comparison might be Joe Louis' stature in the African-American community in the late 1930's and 40's. The descriptions I have read of Manila neighborhoods and rural Filipino villages during Pacquiao fights sound quite similar to Maya Angelou's memoir section about her family and neighbors gathering in the rural American south to listen to Joe Louis fights on the radio.

    Pacquiao rose from the very depths of Filipino poverty, and no matter what kind of fabulous material success he achieves, the common people there continue to regard him as very much one of their own. And no matter how wealthy Pacman has become, he has by all reports remained true to his roots, retaining close ties and relationships from his youth.

    Pacquiao has spent his own money to fund desperately needed development projects in the Philippines. Even the international reporters and Filipino bloggers I have read who are critical of Pacquiao's actual political career seem to accept as a fact that he is genuinely sincere in his strong desire to improve the lives of his fellow citizens.   

"For God and the Poor": The Political Philosophy of Manny Pacquiao

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    A devout Roman Catholic, Manny Pacquiao's stated political philosophy is not easily categorized within the framework of American politics. A Guardian story from April 2010 quotes Pacquiao at a campaign rally, declaring that "what is important is my relationship to God and the Filipino people" before promising to lobby for "basic needs" such as vocational training and free education and health care.

    In rhetoric, Pacquiao's politics sound very similar to the Liberation Theology movement that arose in Latin American in the 1970's and 80's.

    Applying this sort of idealism to the dirty realities of Filipino politics would be a major challenge for any representative. In a piece published on Slate, Rafe Bartholomew, who reported from Manila from 2005 to 2008, worried that in serving in the Filipino Congress, Pacquiao would inevitably "increase his fortune while destroying his reputation." 

    Prior to Pacquiao taking office, University of the Philippines' Economics Professor Winnie Monsod stated that while she believed Pacquiao was sincere, she "was not ready to translate that sincerity into deeds, because the politicians he associates with do not have the highest reputations for integrity."

    Among those politicians is the man described as Pacquiao's political mentor, Luis "Chavit" Signon. Signon has admitted to taking and passing on gambling kickbacks. An Agence France Presse story about the previously mentioned Maguindanao Massacre described Signon as a "warlord."  

Manny Pacquiao in Office: Condoms and Charges of Hypocricy

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    Manny Pacquiao has now served in the Filipino Congress for just over a year and much of that time was spent training for his fight with Shane Mosley. An article in the Daily Telegraph says of Pacquiao's first year that he "mostly kept his head down."

    The big exception to this has been his vocal opposition to a National Reproductive Health Bill that would have allowed the government to give free birth control and vital information about mother and child health to the poor. In a country with one of the fastest rising populations in Asia, this position was guaranteed to draw rebuke.

    Pacquiao justified the vote by citing his devout Catholic faith, an explanation that has been openly derided as hypocritical by such writers as Ishmael Abdu Salaam of Fight Scene, citing the fact that Pacquiao's wife has used birth-control pills in their own marriage.

    Pacquiao has been the subject of infidelity reports (a topic which Jinkee has granted candid interviews about), and habit of consorting with venal and immoral American jetsetters like Paris Hilton.

    However, Pacquiao's star seems still not to have diminished in any significant way. In a country where hope is often scarce, a great deal of it still rests on Pacman. When Pacquiao was recently rejected for membership in the Manila Polo and Golf Club, noted Filipino blogger James Cordova urged Pacquiao to forget about the elite who look down on him and instead seriously commit himself to the poor who revere him.

Manny Pacquiao as a Player in U.S. Politics

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    How's this for a detail from the fabulous life of Manny Pacquiao: Even as Pac' was launching his own political career back home, he was taking time to save Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's career here in the U.S.

    Many political observers believe that Reid, the senior Senator from Nevada and most powerful man in the Senate, would have gone down in defeat during the Tea Party tidal wave of 2010 if not for a last minute campaign appearance made by Pacquiao in Las Vegas, which drew massive crowds of U.S. citizens of Filipino descent.

    As Manny himself noted afterward, Reid was trailing by four points in some polls when he arrived in Las Vegas, only days before the election.

    Pacquiao's support has also been cited as critical for helping elect Jerry Brown Governor in California.