President Manny Pacquiao

For more than a decade, he has given Filipinos the world over the chance to bask in his reflected glory. Malacañang has declared him our “national treasure.” Reporters refer to him as “the people’s champ.” He has been described as an inspiring athlete, a role model for sportsmanship and a rallying force for national solidarity. 

Our adulation, however, comes with a caveat. We are his supporters only when he is a boxer. We are his critics when he attempts to become a singer, an actor, a game show host and, most controversially, a politician. It is a classic case of conditional love. We love our champ if he sticks to what he does best and we condemn him when he dabbles in fields outside his core competence. Focus on sports. Stay away from politics. These are lines his part-time fans, part-time critics tell him. 

I too subscribe to this position. I look forward to a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight but feel uncomfortable with the prospects of a President Manny Pacquiao. It is important to reflect on this discomfort. We are often faced with a sense of anxiety each time a celebrity expresses interest in joining the electoral contest. In Pacquiao’s case, his political plans will become an even more topical issue in the coming years as his inevitable retirement from boxing draws near. 

What is it that makes us feel anxious about the political prospects of the people’s champ? Do we have a fair basis for ruling out Pacquiao as a serious public servant? 

Biographical track record

For some, the anxiety comes from Pacquiao’s questionable contributions to democratic politics. His legislative track record is weak. His chronic absenteeism in Congress is a cause of concern. His failure to pay correct taxes is a serious offense. These shortcomings provide a fair basis for scepticism against Pacquiao’s commitment as a public servant. 

What I find unfair are disparaging comments against his biographical credentials. An analysis of comments in social media and Internet forums reveal prejudice against Pacquiao’s “nosebleed carabao English.” One described him as an “illiterate thug who cannot possibly understand the KJV [King James Version of the] Bible.” Another dismissed him as “a high school dropout without proper education in law.”

I find these comments unfair because they give privilege to a narrow view of political representation. For some, politics remains to be the exclusive domain of the English-speaking educated elite, as if an Ivy League education has been a good indicator of an elected official’s capacity to represent and empathize with one’s constituents. This is not to say that education and eloquence are irrelevant political credentials.

However, the tendency to automatically reject political aspirants who did not complete formal education (“walang pinag-aralan”) and fail to adhere to bourgeois cultural expectations (speaking “carabao English”) may undermine the possibility of broadening the political space to representatives with underprivileged backgrounds.

Criticisms solely focused on Pacquiao’s biographical characteristics make me wonder whether we still live in a society where a strong sense of “knowing one’s place” remains – one where a poor boy who did well can be a national icon and land a spot at the World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes but can never be granted the same status or esteem accorded to landed, cultured and (formally) educated politicians. 

Instead of being a liability, the biography of political aspirants such as Pacquiao may have an important role to play in making politics more inclusive. They have the potential to present an authentic counter-narrative to a political system that remains dominated by historically privileged elites.

Redistribution of political power

Today, what we need is a political space that can give voice and visibility to personalities who share the same characteristics as the Philippines’ underprivileged class – the majority of the electorate who experience hunger, homelessness, and job insecurity. The cycle of letting the privileged few decide on our collective destiny has to be broken, if only to give credible hope to democracy’s promise of redistributing political power. 

This is not an unachievable aim in an unjust world. In the past decade, countries from the global south have won important victories against elite democracy by electing progressive presidents from working class backgrounds. A former brick maker and coca farmer became Bolivia’s first indigenous president and a global campaigner for climate justice. The globally endeared “poorest President in the World” from Uruguay was part of an urban guerrilla group in the 1970s that robbed banks to redistribute wealth to the poor. A metal worker who dropped out of second grade led Brazil to become the world's 8th largest economy.

None of these leaders speak good English and this was irrelevant to the electorate. While others tend to dismiss them as populist demagogues, it would be arrogant to deny that these are much-needed symbolic victories for societies with deeply entrenched inequalities. These are political achievements because they give evidence to the possibility that historically oppressed groups can achieve power – that a poor boy from Mindanao who did not finish high school due to extreme poverty can share the same political stage as caciques and dynasties.

Unfortunately, in a country where the party system is weak and money politics remains strong, it is the power of celebrity that often carves out spaces for alternative personalities to join the political fray.  

The perils of Pacquiao’s politics

It would be condescending to criticize Pacquiao’s political aspirations based on his biographical past. Penalizing him for being forced out of education and failing to fit the template of an articulate English-speaking politician perpetuates an exclusionary view of politics where only personalities espousing characteristics of privilege are considered appropriate for holding political power. 

A fair point of critique is to examine how Pacquiao uses his biographical past to make sense of his political present. And this is where the promise of Pacquiao’s politics turns into perils.

Instead of acting as champion of pro-poor policies, Pacquiao was quick to build his own dynasty, maintain links with questionable political figures and oppose progressive legislation like the Reproductive Health Law. Let’s give the people’s champ the respect he deserves by assessing his political aspirations based on the merits of his political track record, not based on our prejudices and discomfort on how tacky Mommy Dionesia can redecorate Malacañang. 

Pacquiao’s political aspirations is a test case for how the Philippines’ so-called “enlightened voters” frame a conversation about the merits of electing popular candidates from non-elite backgrounds. My sense is this: that as this conversation moves forward, it becomes less about Pacquiao but more about our deeply entrenched prejudices on what makes President Manny Pacquiao an implausible proposition. – 

Nicole Curato is a sociologist from the University of the Philippines. She is currently based in Canberra for a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance.