Philippine boxing icon Manny Pacquiao poses for photos during a press conference shortly after arriving at the international airport in Manila on January 24, 2019, days after defeating US boxer Adrien Broner in Las Vegas. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

MANILA – Cracks are appearing in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruling coalition over what is expected to be a hard-knuckled contest at the 2022 presidential elections.

The surprising challenge comes from no less than the ambitious boxer-turned-politician, Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao, who has fixed his gaze on the top office.

In recent months, the 42-year-old Filipino prize fighter icon, who is currently serving his first term as a senator, has rapidly transformed from a reliable and unquestioning ally into one of the most vocal critics of the Filipino president.

Amid growing anti-China sentiment in the Philippines, the prospective presidential candidate has also taken an increasingly tough stance on the South China Sea disputes in stark contrast to the Beijing-friendly president. 

Latest surveys show that Pacquiao would face an uphill battle for the presidency in the upcoming elections, where presidential daughter Sara Duterte and the namesake son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos are in leading positions.

The Filipino boxing sensation, however, has a fighting chance should he choose a popular running-mate and tap into public dissatisfaction with Duterte’s bumbling management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to a recent survey, the president’s trust rating is down to 55%, a significant reduction from his historic high ratings of 91% in previous surveys. Constitutionally, Duterte can only serve a single six-year term in office, which will expire next year.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) shakes hands with boxing icon and then-newly elected Senator Manny Pacquiao at a meeting in Davao in southern island of Mindanao on May 28, 2017. Photo: AFP/Manman Dejeto

But there are signs that the Filipino populist is considering trying to stay in power through proxies, including his long-time aide Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, setting the stage for a direct clash with allies such as Pacquiao.

Up until recently, Pacquiao saw Duterte, his colleague at the ruling PDP-Laban Party, as a potential patron. Both of them hail from the island of Mindanao, which has historically been marginalized in Philippine politics.

The boxing sensation likely saw Duterte, the first Filipino president from the southern island, as a natural ally for future elections, given their shared illiberal views and natural antipathy towards “Imperial Manila” elite.

During Pacquiao’s 39th birthday bash in 2017, Duterte seemingly endorsed Pacquiao’s plan for higher office. “I told him when we were alone, I want him to become president,” Duterte said, praising the boxer-senator as both a capable politician and national hero.

“You have brought so much pride and joy to our country for being the world champion in the field of boxing,” Duterte added.

Throughout the years, Pacquiao played coy whenever asked about his presidential ambitions, yet never ruled it out in his public pronouncements.

“I didn’t become a boxer to fight in four-rounders or ten-rounders. I boxed to become a world champion. Any politician even a barangay chairman dreams of becoming president,” he admitted in one of his interviews.

Among his coterie of yes-men and unquestioning supporters are his long-time trainer, Freddie Roach, who has said a Pacquiao presidency will allow the boxing champion “to help the people and the best way to help people is to be the boss.”

“He probably wants to be the first president to win a world championship. He’s always been a guy who does 100 things at once,” the famous trainer said, indicating that Pacquiao is poised for the presidency while still active on the global boxing scene.

Back in 2019, when asked if he will continue boxing should he become the president, Pacquiao himself told a reporter: “I hope so.”

There are, however, few signs that Pacquaio has done much to prepare himself for the rigors of high office.

As a senator, he has consistently been the top absentee in the country’s highest legislative chamber, ever-busy elsewhere, from boxing matches to movie appearances and music performances.

Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao performs during a free concert to coincide with the launching of his own cryptocurrency “Pac Token” at a sports center in Manila, September 1, 2019. Photo: AFP / Maria Tan

During Senate hearings, he has often come off as bumbling and was famously once publicly schooled on “very basic” principles of the legislative process by a senior colleague. That’s raised concerns about his commitment and competence to run for higher office.

He also made a stir on the international stage in 2016 when he said homosexuals are “worse than animals”, a remark that caused Nike to terminate its apparel sponsorship deal with the boxer.

Still, Pacquaio remains deeply popular in his homeland, with surveys showing that he will likely top the next senate race should he forego his presidential ambitions in 2022.

In recent years, his camp has sought to set up mega-fights, including a rematch with undefeated boxer Floyd “money” Mayweather as well as mixed martial arts sensation Conor McGregor, to stay at the forefront of sports-crazed Filipinos’ heart and minds.

Despite the Covid-19 restrictions, the legislator-boxer seems determined to set up another match in the coming months, likely as a publicity launching pad for his presidential bid next year.

Pacquiao’s ambitions, however, have set him on a collision course with the incumbent. Relations began to sour in March between the two tough talkers when Duterte claimed that his longtime aide, Bong Go, will also seek the presidency.

Meanwhile, Duterte allies from the ruling PDP-Laban forwarded a resolution urging Duterte to run for vice president in next year’s elections, likely in tandem with Senator Go.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) raises the arm of his executive assistant Bong Go, after filing his senatorial candidacy, Manila, October 15, 2018. Photo: Presidential Palace

The long-rumored plan has evoked comparisons to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move to run as prime minister under longtime aide Dmitry Medvedev to circumvent constitutional restrictions on serving consecutive terms in 2008 elections.

In a clear display of frustration, Pacquiao, who heads the PDP-Laban Party, lashed out at his party mates for the “unauthorized” suggestion, accusing Duterte’s allies of politicking in the middle of the Covid-19 national crisis.

“I have no knowledge of that. I did not sanction that as acting party president. That is not authorized because the party’s focus is to help the people and address hunger amid trying times,” he said in Filipino.

When asked whether the ruling party is preparing its next presidential candidates, Pacquiao adamantly said “Totally not yet, because the country is facing serious problems.”

The pugilist has also publicly taken jabs at Duterte’s cronies.

I only have one thing to say: Stand by what you said that we should help our countrymen first, and not focus on politics,” exclaimed Pacquiao, referring to Duterte’s energy secretary and PDP-Laban executive Alfonso Cusi, who reportedly masterminded the mooted Duterte-Go ticket.

“Don’t divide the members of the party to serve your own purpose. Unless you’re helping, but if you’re going around to talk about politics, don’t poison the minds of the party. I do not allow it. I do no sanction it. That was not authorized,” a peeved Pacquiao said.

Despite claims by both sides that there are no rifts between Pacquiao and Duterte, tensions once again flared up amid the month-long standoff between the Philippines and China over the Whitsun Reef in the contested South China Sea.

This May 2021 photo taken by the Philippine Coast Guard shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza in the Philippine island of Palawan in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

“It (campaign promise) gave me and many others great encouragement and resolve that I said to myself: ‘this is what we need.’ But time came when he (Duterte) buckled when we need to make a stand,” Pacquiao told reporters, referring to Duterte’s campaign promise in 2016 to take a jet ski to lay personal claim to disputed reefs and islands, only to adopt a broadly pro-China position once in office.

In a thinly-veiled criticism of Duterte’s apparent volte-face, Pacquiao reminded how “millions of Filipinos starting from our ancestors” fought for the country’s independence and territorial integrity.

“I understand our president has a lot of problems to deal with… but if our President softens, our resolve would weaken,” Pacquiao said, criticizing Duterte of soft-pedaling on the country’s sovereign claims in the South China Sea.

Earlier, Pacquaio also sought to cement his nationalist bona fides by writing multiple letters to Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian expressing his discontent with the presence of an armada of Chinese militia vessels in Philippine-claimed waters.

In one of the letters, which was publicly released, Pacquiao criticized “the continuing presence of Chinese ships at the said reef, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, only creates tension and harbors divisiveness in our region and evidently destabilizing to the international rule of law.”

“In line with this, we reiterate our call to your government to promptly withdraw these vessels from our territory. We demand nothing less than for your country to respect our sovereignty,” the statement added.

Manny Pacquiao (R) fights Argentina’s Lucas Matthysse during their world welterweight boxing championship bout at Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur on July 15, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Looking ahead, however, Pacquiao’s main challenge will be to find big-money backers, including well-heeled and politically-involved oligarchs who control major parties aside from the fractious PDP-Laban party.

One potential running-mate is the popular mayor of Manila, Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, who placed slightly higher than Pacquiao in recent surveys of potential presidential candidates.

Should the two youthful politicians form a twin ticket, they could yet present a formidable one-two challenge to Duterte’s own plans for the 2022 elections.