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He has done nearly everything else except formally announce it, because if he does, under Commission on Elections (Comelec) rules he could be liable to charges of premature campaigning, but perennial absentee senator-cum-boxer Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao seems determined to run for President in 2022.
He has reportedly narrowed his choices for vice-presidential running mate to either Senate President Vicente Sotto III or Senator Panfilo Lacson. But that is not as significant as his decision to distance himself from the current regime by initially being critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s unwillingness and inability to defend the country’s interests in the West Philippine Sea, and lately, by in effect declaring that corruption in government has reached unprecedented levels.
Mr. Duterte has not surprisingly accused him of politicking in behalf of his presidential ambitions. However, Pacquiao would only be in the same company as Duterte’s daughter Sara, Manila Mayor “Isko” Moreno, and presidential confidant Christopher “Bong” Go, all of whom could also be accused of launching their drives for the country’s highest elective post way ahead of the official campaign period that starts only in February 2022.
But whatever his motives, Pacquiao’s is one more addition to the many other voices — those of civil society, sectoral and mass organizations, business associations, journalists’ and lawyers’ groups, ordinary folk, and such global corruption watch groups as Transparency International — that have been lamenting the misuse of government funds, the unaccountability, and the racketeering in many government agencies. While rampant even in previous administrations, these practices have visibly worsened in the present one in which, it is widely believed, even the pandemic crisis has become another source of public sector profiteering.
His focus on the West Philippine Sea issue and on government corruption is doubly significant. It indicates not only a break with the Duterte camp. Pacquiao’s publicists and advisers have apparently convinced him that both issues would resonate most among the electorate while not incidentally keeping his name in the media and the public mind — and that, perhaps together with whatever other concerns they decide to hold against Mr. Duterte, they are most likely to have an impact on the results of the elections next year.
As is his habit of insulting anyone who disagrees with him, Mr. Duterte accused Pacquiao of ignorance about the West Philippine Sea issue and told him to study it. In response, the latter said one does not need to study to do right, by which he apparently meant that the need to defend Philippine interests against Chinese aggression in, and occupation of parts of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is evident enough for anyone to understand.
Dared by Mr. Duterte to prove his claims about corruption in government by naming the agencies involved, Pacquiao named the Department of Health (DoH) and its present head. Only the presidential spokesperson took exception to his allegation. But apparently unaware that even the worst publicity is still publicity, Mr. Duterte continued to hurl insults at Pacquiao, and so did the regime’s keyboard legions of trolls and its hirelings in print and broadcast media.
Mr. Duterte vowed to abolish corruption during the 2016 campaign for the presidency, and has often proclaimed his supposed dedication to putting an end to it. But the reality is that in a number of instances, his deeds have not matched his words. Among the most obvious of cases are his removing from office bureaucrats accused of corruption only to appoint them to some other, at times more lucrative, post, and his refusing to take any action against others perceived to be close to him despite his vow to remove anyone with “the slightest whiff” of wrongdoing.
The latest surveys do say that Mr. Duterte remains as popular as ever despite the runaway corruption, his anti-American grandstanding, his pro-China policy, the economic recession, the huge unemployment numbers, the attacks on the free press, the extrajudicial killings, the rank incompetence of many of his officials, his regime’s less than sterling performance in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, and his statements that seem to be declarations of State policies, but which later turn out to be jokes, exaggerations, or mere attempts to fill dead air.
It is uncertain if the survey results truly reflect the sentiments of the majority of Filipinos, or were driven by fears that any criticism of Mr. Duterte and his administration, no matter how minor or merely implied, could provoke his and his cronies’ and enforcers’ anger and vindictiveness. Only the results of the 2022 elections, assuming they will be fair and honest, can prove the surveys right or wrong.
But the extent and intensity of Mr. Duterte’s, his apologists’, cronies’, and henchmen’s reaction to Pacquiao’s statements constitute implicit recognition that, in addition to his billions and his millions of fans, supporters and idolators across these isles, his focusing on the West Philippine Sea and corruption issues, the (mis)handling of which the majority of Filipinos have expressed extreme dissatisfaction in the same surveys, gives him an edge over other candidates that could result in his winning the presidency in the 2022 elections.
However, rather than being based on popularity, name recall, and the mass appeal of the issues he has raised, his hypothetical victory next year should be based on how different from the present dispensation a Pacquiao administration would be.
Thanks to whoever his publicists and advisers are, Pacquiao does sound more reasonable and more presidential today than Mr. Duterte has ever been. Gone are the off-the-cuff, shoot-from-the-hip statements that he used to issue on such matters as his death penalty advocacy; and his statements on the West Philippine Sea and corruption were instead well rehearsed and calculated to make him sound patriotic, civil, and in tune with the issues.
But these are not enough to sway in his favor those among the electorate who are looking for an alternative to the Duterte regime and who cannot be blamed for recalling how Pacquiao had so enthusiastically supported and been so much identified with it, as both his possible running mates Sotto and Lacson have been.
For the righteously skeptical to be convinced of the difference, Pacquiao and company will have to complete their self-re-invention by putting together the coherent, rational and doable program of government that the country sorely needs but which the so-called political parties and a succession of regimes have denied it for decades. Such a program would necessarily include a serious commitment to the recovery and defense of Philippine independence and sovereignty, as well as the means through which corruption can be contained if not eliminated altogether. Even more crucial are getting the economy moving by effectively ending the pandemic, and putting a stop to the killing and harassment of government critics, human rights defenders, independent journalists, lawyers, and even local officials.
Such a program of government is equally imperative for the other political formations the individuals vying for the presidency and other posts to craft. It could help imbue with some sanity the madness that Philippine elections often are. Should, say, Pacquiao’s group or 1Sambayan put together a credible platform that promises to address the country’s most urgent woes, to justify its determination to remain in power the Duterte camp could be compelled to do the same. It could initiate at least some debate on the issues rather than once more dooming the electorate to making a choice between who can tell the most offensive jokes, who can better sing and dance, or who looks prettier on stage.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).