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.