MANILA, April 8 – Win or lose in his mega-bucks fight this weekend, Philippine boxing legend Manny Pacquiao will be landing knockout blows against his political rivals with priceless media coverage ahead of national elections.
The eight-time world champion is running for a Senate seat and controversially scheduled his bout against Timothy Bradley in Las Vegas to be held just one-month ahead of polling day.
The fight will ensure most Filipinos will be fixated on him as they watch live broadcasts on Sunday morning, local time, while the media coverage of the build-up has already gifted him tens of millions of dollars worth of free advertising.
It is a strategy that has rivals fuming, accusing him of below-the-belt tactics that circumvent election campaign advertisement spending laws.
“If he had a sense of sportsmanship he wouldn’t be staging the fight just one month before the elections,” senatorial candidate Walden Bello, who filed a failed legal challenge to reschedule the bout, told AFP.
More neutral observers also point out that Pacquiao is gaining an unfair advantage.
“His only source of publicity is his fights, not his (political) platform. It is too much of an advantage,” said Sixto Brillantes, former head of the Commission on Elections, which runs the polls, told AFP.
While his rivals have travelled across the sprawling archipelago to promote their credentials in recent months, Pacquiao has not bothered to hit the hustings, aside from an appearance in Manila when the election campaign was launched in February.
“His form of campaigning is the bout,” Brillantes said.
– Presidential ambitions –
Pacquiao, 37, has said his fight against Bradley will likely be the last of his career so he can pursue his long-held political ambitions. He is hoping a stint in the Senate will serve as a platform for an eventual presidential run.
In a celebrity-obsessed nation where movie stars regularly become powerful politicians, the high school drop-out could indeed defy his lack of education and one day lead the nation of more than 100 million people.
Pacquiao has for the past six years been a member of the lower house, representing a district in the impoverished southern Philippines where he grew up.
His critics say he’s done little as a politician to help ordinary Filipinos, pointing out he has had one of the worst attendance records in parliament.
“He was my vice chair of the house committee on overseas workers and he did not attend a single meeting,” Bello said.
And even after a controversy in February when the born-again Christian drew widespread condemnation for describing homosexuals as “worse than animals”, Pacquiao looks set to comfortably win a Senate seat.
He is currently in seventh place on Senate popularity ratings surveys, with 12 seats up for grabs, according to Manila-based pollster Pulse Asia.
Pacquiao was in 10th place in a January survey, and Pulse Asia research director Ana Maria Tabunda attributed his steady climb despite not campaigning to the intense media coverage of his preparations for the Bradley fight.
“He is a national hero of sorts to many of our people… he has good name recall whether there is a fight or not,” Tabunda told AFP.
“But it also helps that he is there (in the news) every day,” Tabunda said.
– National glory –
In a statement to the election commission to address Bello’s request to postpone the fight, his lawyers insisted Pacquiao primarily wanted to uplift the spirits of his countrymen.
“(It) has to be done before his youth is gone, to give our country and our people the pride and glory they justly deserve, which is always foremost in his heart and mind,” the lawyers said in a written submission.
The commission announced last month it could not postpone the fight or disqualify Pacquiao from running for the Senate because it had no authority to rule on an event that had not happened.
“That is not within our control. We are not in a position right now to stop it,” commission chief Andres Bautista, although he said Pacquiao could face legal challenges afterwards.
Pacquiao has largely ignored the controversy, while focusing on his training.
In one of his few comments on the issue, Pacquiao denied any skullduggery in relation to the timing of his fight.
“This is not for my personal glory. I’m fighting for the honour of our country and to glorify God through sports,” Pacquiao said in a text message to journalists.