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Politics

Pacquiao adds punch to Duterte's party as new leader

Philippine boxing icon's new role stirs talk of presidential run

Manny Pacquiao enters the ring for a fight in July 2019: The Filipino boxer-turned-politician has become the head of President Rodrigo Duterte's party.   © Reuters

MANILA -- Boxing icon Manny Pacquiao has taken over the leadership of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's political party, in a move seen as an effort to expand and energize the group's base ahead of national elections in 2022.

Pacquiao's swearing-in as head of the ruling PDP-Laban on Wednesday night has also reignited speculation that the fighter-turned-politician intends to run for president. The 41-year-old senator will complete his six-year term that year, leaving him eligible to run for reelection or seek a higher position.

Duterte, the party chair, enjoys high popularity but is limited to a single six-year presidential term.

For now, party officials have dismissed the guessing game about plans for 2022, while an analyst said it is too early to make assumptions -- especially in a country where political alliances are loose and switching party affiliations ahead of polls is common.

"Senator Pacquiao will bring not only more energy to the party in the sense of expanding its membership, but also more discipline to the current members in the sense of inculcating in them the concept of principles-based politics, which includes their party membership," Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, Pacquiao's predecessor at PDP-Laban, was quoted as saying by local media outlets.

Also sworn in on Wednesday was House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, who became the new PDP-Laban executive vice president. Velasco is a close ally of Duterte's daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, who political insiders believe also has a shot at the presidency. She has yet to declare a presidential bid, either.

Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao and President Rodrigo Duterte's daughter, is also seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2022.   © Reuters

Bob Herrera Lim, an analyst at risk consultancy Teneo, said it is difficult to make predictions over a year before the elections.

"Pacquiao's elevation to PDP-Laban may, for instance, be part of a strategy to reduce the possibility that he runs as an independent candidate, and instead joins the administration ticket as either its presidential or vice presidential candidate, depending upon alignments that are still to be decided in the coming year," he said. Alternatively, he added, it could be "simply to bolster the party's visibility."

Vice President Leni Robredo, who belongs to the rival Liberal Party, and former Senator Bongbong Marcos -- who is the son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and lost to Robredo by a slim margin in the 2016 elections -- have not ruled out possible presidential bids of their own.

Senator Bong Go, a former presidential aide who remains a close confidant of Duterte, could also run, according to analysts. Go has not declared his intentions.

Pacquiao, who rose from poverty on the island of Mindanao to become a legend in his sport, is regarded as a hero across the Philippines. However, his remarks against same-sex marriage in 2016, when he called gay people "worse than animals," enraged many around the world.

Speaking to his party colleagues on Wednesday, Pacquiao spelled out his brand of leadership, echoing Duterte's anti-elite and anti-corruption rhetoric that helped propel the former Mindanao mayor to the presidency.

"We are not beholden to big businesses, foreign entities, nor vested interests, but only to the Filipino people," Pacquiao said, according to local media. "We are here to fight for the poor, the jobless, the homeless, the voiceless and the hopeless. This is what the PDP-Laban under Manny Pacquiao will stand for."

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