Mindanao, Philippines – Following his WBO welterweight victory in Las Vegas in November 2016, international boxing champion Manny Pacquiao paid President Rodrigo Duterte a visit at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila.
Greeting Pacquiao in front of a media scrum, Duterte raised the first-term senator’s left hand and declared, “This one’s for president”, seemingly anointing a possible successor, who was grinning from ear to ear as the cameras flashed.
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A month later, at the boxer’s 38th birthday celebrations, the Philippine president again heaped praise on Pacquiao, calling him “president-to-be” in front of his family and thousands of supporters in the city of General Santos in the southern island of Mindanao.
The ties between Mindanao’s two most prominent figures go back a long way.
In the early 2000s, Duterte took the up-and-coming boxer under his wing and sponsored one of his fights in the southern city of Davao where he was mayor.
Pacquiao returned the favour by becoming a loyal Duterte acolyte.
When Duterte launched his so-called “war on drugs” in 2016, Pacquiao was among its most ardent supporters, arguing it was necessary to stop the narcotics trade, despite having admitted he used methamphetamine and cocaine as a teenager.
The fundamentalist Christian senator also threw his weight behind the president’s proposal to resurrect the death penalty, suggesting that those found guilty of selling illegal drugs should face execution by firing squad. Pacquiao once famously said that even Jesus was sentenced to death. He also proclaimed that Duterte was anointed by God to end the country’s drug menace.
But what a difference a few years can make.
When Pacquiao declared his bid for the presidency in 2022 last week, Duterte kept mum. Their months-long feud had already spilled into the open earlier this year, with Pacquiao accusing his one-time ally of corruption in procuring anti-COVID-19 supplies. In turn, Duterte mocked the boxer as “punch-drunk”, belittling his understanding of diplomacy. The announcement served to publicly sever Pacquaio’s ties with his one-time political patron.
“I’m a fighter and will always be a fighter, inside and outside of the ring,” Pacquiao said as he accepted the nomination. “All my life, I haven’t backed down from any fight,”
Philippine boxer-turned-politician Manny Pacquiao is running for president in next year's election as President Duterte is barred from another term, but has been picked by a rival party to run for VP.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 20, 2021
Pacquiao’s candidacy has also laid bare the factionalism within the ruling PDP-Laban party, and threatens both men’s support in Mindanao, their shared hometown and electoral stronghold.
Armand Dean Nocum, a Manila-based political analyst and campaign strategist who comes from the city of Zamboanga in Mindanao, says a unified southern vote is crucial for Pacquiao and Duterte, and their split only creates a “lose-lose” scenario for both.
“They will be fighting over the same geographic bloc, and that will give way for a stronger candidate to emerge,” Nocum told Al Jazeera. He points to Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, as the “dark-horse” contender who could benefit from the rift, adding that Moreno already has a “foothold” in the influential region national capital region in the north.
Another potential candidate for president, Vice President Leni Robredo, has yet to announce her decision.
A retired top military official from Mindanao also told Al Jazeera that if the rival Duterte and Pacquiao factions are unable to mend their party differences, the votes from the southern island “will have to be split”.
The ex-general, who asked not to be named, said Mindanao voters and Filipinos as a whole “are losing trust” in Duterte’s leadership because of his “failed pandemic response, significant corruption allegations and “un-presidential’ behaviour”.
The Philippine constitution allows the country’s president to serve for only one six-year term. During campaigning in every presidential election, candidates frequently shift allegiances to those they expect to win, regardless of party affiliation.
Politicians are called “political butterflies” because of this.
Duterte’s own political loyalties have also shifted in the past.
In 2010, Duterte led the campaign of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, in his bailiwick of Davao. But in 2016, he ditched Aquino’s party and made a bid for the presidency and was successfully elected that year.
That same year, Pacquiao ran for senator and won, and declared fealty to Duterte.
But nearly six years later, Pacquiao turned his back on Duterte. Yet this will hardly be surprising to the Philippines’s 61 million voters long familiar with their representatives’ political shenanigans.
The upcoming May 9, 2022 presidential race however has now been complicated by Duterte’s apparent sleight-of-hand steps.
Barred from running for a second term, Duterte has taken the unprecedented move of accepting the nomination to run as vice president, with his most trusted aide, Senator Bong Go nominated to run as president.
But Go has rejected that nomination. Some analysts say Go had been keeping the seat warm for Duterte’s daughter.
The back story: candidates for national posts have until October 8 to file their candidacy. But if they withdraw, they have until November 15 to find a replacement.
This has led to analysts speculating that Duterte could yet make a last-minute announcement about Go’s replacement.
“With Philippine politics, nothing is impossible because he [Duterte] has done that in the past,” PJ dela Pena, a broadcast journalist from Mindanao, told Al Jazeera.
“He still has a few tricks up his sleeves.”
Duterte has set a precedent in the past. In late 2015, an unknown presidential candidate of the PDP-Laban dropped out of the race, paving the way for the Mindanao politician to step in.
Having earlier announced that he was not going to run, despite growing support and an intense public relations campaign, Duterte entered the 2016 race at the last minute. Critics called it a ruse, claiming that he had planned to run all along.
As the 2022 race approaches, observers say Duterte is now aiming to recreate the sense of suspense generated during his 2016 campaign. This time, the “surprise candidate” for president could be his daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, who is currently the mayor of Davao.
Now aged 76, Duterte, who some say is visibly frail, could even pull off another hat trick by withdrawing his vice presidential candidacy. Some media pundits say Duterte might even be keeping the seat warm for another yet-to-be-announced candidate.
His game plan, they say, is to pair his daughter with a running-mate from the north – perhaps Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of the late Philippine strongman. Marcos’s sister, Senator Imee Marcos has already alluded to such a scenario, calling it a “match made in political heaven”.
On Friday, the KBL party of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos nominated his son, Ferdinand Jr, as their candidate for president. Asked by the media if his message to the party was an acceptance of the nomination, Ferdinand Jr said he will answer it “when the time comes”.
“I fully intend to take all the available time that I have to make the decision.”
For the elder Duterte, who faces a possible indictment at the International Criminal Court over the deadly war on drugs, ensuring that he gets legal cover from a friendly successor once he leaves office is crucial, according to analysts.
Duterte-Carpio has so far remained coy about her plans. In recent weeks, she has publicly said that she will no longer run for president, citing her own father’s candidacy for vice president.
She cited a deal with her father that only one of them would make a bid for the presidency. But the father and daughter duo have a history of running together as mayor and vice mayor of Davao respectively, only to switch positions later when the elder Duterte could not run, due to term limits.
Duterte-Carpio has continued to deny she wants to run as president but is still touring several areas in the Philippines, courting various regional powerbrokers.
When asked if she would change her mind if her father withdrew, she told a Philippine newspaper that it was a “hypothetical question” that she could “not answer at this point”.
According to a second unnamed Al Jazeera source from Mindanao, however, campaign materials in support of her candidacy have already been distributed in recent weeks in anticipation of an announcement. The source wanted to remain unnamed as they were not authorised to speak to the media.
Based on the latest political chatter and her recent behaviour, broadcast journalist dela Pena also told Al Jazeera he thinks that Duterte-Carpio will likely run. “I think 90 percent she’s running,” he said.
All over Mindanao and in other parts of the country, oversized banners urging Duterte-Carpio to run began to appear earlier this year.
Competing political clans are even trying to outdo each other, by putting up rival “Run, Sara, Run” signs in their districts. Other groups have put up signs with the slogan “Daughter-te”, a pun on the president’s last name and the word “daughter”.
‘What’s best for the country’
Pacquiao has stepped into what already appears to be a crowded political ring.
Nocum, the political analyst, says the senator probably sees 2022 as his best chance of becoming president before his popularity as an international boxing champion ebbs.
“By 2028, he would just be another senator dismissed as having done nothing in the Senate. So he knows it’s now or never for him,” Nocum explained.
And that could spell trouble for the Dutertes’ political plans.
Nocum says that with other candidates throwing their hat in the ring, especially on the influential northern Luzon island, the the Duterte and Pacquiao camps will have to lean on their “traditional stronghold” of Mindanao more.
Pacquiao has assiduously courted Mindanao leaders, including former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a politician from the Davao region who has fallen out with Duterte-Carpio.
The unnamed ex-general from Mindanao also told Al Jazeera that he expects more support for Pacquiao will surface from the south in the near future. He said he is doubtful “if Mindanaoans are still desirous of the leadership of the present administration.” He had asked to remain anonymous to be able to speak more freely about a politically-sensitive issue.
But for most Mindanao voters, having a candidate from their region at the top of the presidential ticket matters less now than in 2016, says dela Pena, who has covered several campaigns in his career.
“I think things have changed in the span of time under the Duterte administration. People have really put to test his type of leadership especially during the time of the pandemic,” he told Al Jazeera.
He added that the 2017 Marawi siege – which left a city in ruins and thousands displaced – could be a factor for Mindanao voters. And there are also accusations that the Davao region received more infrastructure funding over other areas in Mindanao.
“So, I don’t think voters are concerned about splitting the Mindanao vote, but rather on electing a leader that would be best for the country.”