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Pacquaio clashes with Duterte as boxer ponders presidential bid

Tensions rise in ruling party over South China Sea policy, succession plans

A feud over the disputed South China Sea erupted this week between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and boxer-turned-politician Manny Pacquiao. (Source photos by Ken Kobayashi and Shinya Sawai)

MANILA -- Philippine Sen. Manny Pacquiao is facing increasingly hostile party allies, including President Rodrigo Duterte, complicating the boxer-turned-politician's bid to win endorsement for his possible presidential run next year.

Duterte is the chairman and Pacquiao is the president of the ruling PDP-Laban party, but the pair have clashed over the South China Sea territorial dispute -- a key policy issue for the president. Friction between Pacquiao and other senior party officers also has grown over presidential succession plans.

This week, a feud erupted between Duterte and Pacquaio over the South China Sea, an issue that the political opposition often uses to attack the president, who has nurtured closer ties with Beijing.

Duterte, in an interview with the news channel SMNI late Tuesday, lashed out at Pacquiao's "shallow knowledge" of the issue and said the senator "should study first" before meddling in foreign policy.

Pacquiao last month echoed Duterte's critics, calling the president's response to Chinese maritime encroachments "lacking." On Wednesday, the senator said, "I respect the president's opinion but humbly disagree with his assessment of my understanding of foreign policy."

"I firmly believe that my statement reflects the sentiment of [the] majority of the Filipinos, that we should stand strong in protecting our sovereign rights while pursuing a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the dispute," Pacquiao said in a statement.

The feud follows Pacquiao's calling for a boycott of an assembly last month at which Duterte loyalists formally urged the president to run for vice president in 2022 to circumvent a rule on term limits and remain in power. Loyalists also gave the 76-year-old leader a free hand to pick his running mate -- who, according to analysts, could be his daughter, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, who has topped opinion polls. In the Philippines, the president and vice president are elected separately.

The rising tensions between Pacquaio and senior party colleagues have raised questions about his standing in the ruling party. University of the Philippines political science professor Jean Franco did not rule out the possibility that the senator is being eased out.

"The election is nearing, and the uncertainty and tension are heightened by the fact that there are rumors that the president's daughter is really running [for president]," Franco said. The Davao mayor, like Pacquiao, has yet to declare a presidential bid.

Since 2016, Pacquiao has backed Duterte's controversial policies such as the brutal anti-drug campaign, which has killed thousands of suspects, as well as calls for the revival of the death penalty for heinous crimes.

But he has recently moved to distinguish himself from Duterte on key issues ahead of the May 2022 poll.

Pacquiao wrote to U.S. President Joe Biden, asking to speed up the delivery of Moderna vaccines, while Duterte has courted China and Russia for pandemic support, including COVID shots.

Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, last month said there was "no falling out" between the president and Pacquiao. Last week, Roque said Pacquaio was among those being considered by Duterte as his successor. Other choices include his daughter; Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a former senator and son of the late dictator; Sen. Bong Go, a former aide to Duterte; and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno.

But in the SMNI interview on Tuesday, Duterte said he has not chosen a successor. "None. I don't find anyone deserving," the president said.

Pacquiao told broadcaster ABS-CBN this week that he does not intend to leave the PDP-Laban party. Reacting to calls for Sara Duterte to succeed his father, Pacquiao said: "Let's give others a chance."

The senator has also asked for a personal meeting with Duterte to discuss the party's plans for the 2022 elections, but the president has yet to respond.

"There are a lot of negotiations going on -- a lot of manipulation, I think, within the PDP-Laban or even outside -- and that's what we are witnessing today," said political analyst Ramon Casiple.

The University of the Philippines' Franco said "it's hard to predict" what could happen ahead of the filing of candidacies in October.

Analysts point out that Philippine elections are based on personality rather than party or policy, and that switching parties is common. Pacquiao himself backed a Duterte rival in the 2016 elections but allied with Duterte afterward.

Pacquiao, the second-wealthiest Philippine senator, can also opt to run his own campaign. The 42-year-old, eight-division world champion is seen as a living legend in the Philippines. His rags-to-riches life story has been featured in TV shows and has appealed to many in a country where millions are poor, and his overseas boxing bouts are widely watched in the Philippines.

With 16 million votes, he placed seventh in the 2016 senatorial elections, in which 12 seats were being contested.

Casiple said the meeting of Pacquiao and Duterte is crucial amid infighting within the party.

But ahead of the October candidacy filing, Franco said there is one venue where Pacquiao can raise his political profile: Las Vegas, where he will fight the undefeated Errol Spence Jr. on Aug. 21.

"He should win his next fight," Franco said. "It's a free political advertisement."

"If he wins, he will be covered by local and international media. There will be interviews left and right. But it remains to be seen if that will translate to votes in 2022," the professor added.

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