Manny Pacquiao Begs Voters: 'Give Me One Chance'
KIAMBA, Philippines – In a muddy, muggy, coconut palm-shrouded clearing a mile or so from the gated house that Manny Pacquiao calls home in his Philippines campaign district, the pound-for-pound boxing superstar stood on a crude stage on Thursday, microphone in hand, and appealed to his fans to view him differently.
Not as their sporting icon, who grew up from dire poverty. Not as the fighter who, so far, is creating a massive stir for refusing to fight welterweight Floyd Mayweather because of a request of Olympic-style blood testing to rule out steroid use.
"Give me ONE chance! One chance to show you all what good governance really is!" he bellowed in the region's local Cebuano dialect to the packed gathering of impoverished Kiamba townspeople, a crowd of about 750 that wept, cheered and appeared far more interested in adoring Pacquiao, the Sports Hero rather than Pacquiao, the Congressional Candidate.
A bilingual Kiamba resident provided translation of Pacquiao's words, which included promises of more reliable electricity, better schools and supplies, perhaps even a hospital. This far southern province of about half a million residents on Mindanao island doesn't have a single hospital bed.
So why doesn't Pacquiao, with his many millions earned in the boxing ring, just build the hospital himself? Why rely on a political seat to bring badly need resources to one of the poorest regions of a country where half the population lives on less than $2 a day?
"There are bills already in Congress that I can help push through [for that]," Pacquiao said in an interview at his Kiamba compound minutes before jumping into a bulletproof Chevy Tahoe for the short drive to the political rally in what passes for a park in the impoverished Suli barangay [neighborhood].
Promoter "Big Boss" Bob Arum, as he is known in the Philippines, put it in simpler terms.
"Even Manny doesn't have enough money to get a hospital built in this remote area, let alone buy all the equipment needed to run it," said Arum, who sat onstage with Pacquiao as a visiting celebrity and supporter. "Nobody does anything in the private sector in this country. Too much red tape. It's impossible."
Pacquiao's rousing political stump was delivered amid a spate of other speeches from local candidates running on the political ticket he created, the People's Champ Movement (PCM). The wealthy athlete known throughout the world sported the same official blue campaign vest that his other party candidates wore onstage.
Then again, Pacquiao can make promises that the others running for local office can't really deliver.
The translator said Pacquiao told the Suli neighborhood crowd that he would deliver $500,000 Philippine pesos (about $11,000) in local "aid" if they elected everyone on his PCM party ticket.
Was that vow a show of corruption or simply the way politics are run in the Philippines? The latter is more like it.
This is a country where politicians reach public office because of their vast wealth, their ability to intimidate the opposition into retreating, and their powerful family ties.
For rural illiterate voters who must rely on pictures to select a candidate on the country's new electronic voting machines, it's easy to buy their loyalty and their vote with a promise of a few pesos or a bag of rice.
Pacquiao may not hail from a billionaire family like his opponent, 61-year-old Roy Chiongbian. But he has celebrity clout and fame. And Pacquiao is vowing he'll represent transparency and honesty, traits he hopes will convince these simple people that he'll be a legitimate public servant rather than just another money-skimming politician.
Did the people believe him? Hard to say. The crowd seemed more star struck by the presence of their beloved "Pacman" and the foreigners he brought to the rally, rather than enthralled by the campaign message he tried to deliver.
In these final days before the May 10 national elections, Pacquiao's feverish daytime campaigning throughout Sarangani has slowed considerably, more in line with the fighter's customary nocturnal pace when he is in his home country.
A small group of international media, including a reporter from FanHouse, the Los Angeles Times, the Asia bureau of the Times of London and a reporter from Examiner.com, joined a substantial TV crew from ABS-CBN broadcasting to tail Pacquiao's Thursday campaign. The day was to include the rally at the cramped Suli neighborhood clearing, which was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m.
The media convoy, along with Arum and Pacquiao adviser Michael Koncz, made the winding, 90-mile drive south from General Santos City to the boxer's adopted (for election purposes) Kiamba home.
In broad daylight, there was little to fear despite widespread concerns about campaign violence or random attacks from the Muslim separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF.
Abiding by the latest edict from the Philippine Commission on Elections (Comelec), only two of the multiple Philippine National Police officers assigned to protect the convoy from terrorists were permitted to carry firearms.
Ironically, the three-car caravan traveled the well-constructed highway built by the family of Pacquiao's congressional challenger, Chiongbian, a deeply entrenched clan that employs most of the working people of Sarangani Province.
Once in Kiamba, the wait began.
Pacquiao, as is usual in the middle of the day, was fast asleep.
"We're on Manny Time now," quipped longtime Philippine sports media personality Ronnie Nathanielsz.
In an utterly bizarre but perfectly Filipino scene, Arum and the media were herded by the police through a large iron gate and upstairs inside Pacquiao's home, past a throng of townspeople who huddled indoors to escape the pelting rain. The poor lined the downstairs hallways and the Pacquiao family kitchen, waiting for food and cash handouts.
Pacquiao, his wife Jinkee said, always allows townspeople onto their property and into their home.
"I have to get used to it," she said with a sigh, admitting she is exhausted by all the media attention and complete lack of privacy in their family life due to the campaign.
It was 2 p.m. The foreign visitors and media parked themselves on an upstairs couch, just a few feet from the bedroom where Pacquaio snoozed with Jinkee behind a closed door.
The 3 p.m. start time for the rally came and went. Pacquaio remained asleep.
The media group then retreated downstairs to the dining room, the only air-conditioned place in the packed house, to wait for the boxer/candidate to emerge. He finally did -- at 4 p.m. -- and conducted a few minutes of interviews with reporters.
The public rally eventually began 90 minutes late. On Manny Time.
"These people here, these little children, they don't care that he's nearly two hours late," said Nathanielsz, gesturing to the rain soaked people crowding the stage at the political rally. "This is the most exciting thing that will ever happen to them in their miserable lives."
While he campaigns, boxing fans in the United States and other parts of the world are far more interested in debating whether Pacquiao will ever enter the ring against Mayweather, who is fresh off a dominating 12-round decision over Shane Mosley in Las Vegas.
Arum traveled here on Wednesday to support his top fighter's campaign bid, and the media-savvy promoter did all he could to avoid directly addressing a future Mayweather matchup.
"I'm not even here to campaign for Manny. I'm just here to support him," Arum said. "So why would I start negotiating a fight like that when I'm thousands of miles away [from the U.S.]? It's ridiculous. It's a non-issue right now with Mayweather.
"Sure, it's the fight everyone wants to see. We all know that. The world wants to see them in the ring. But that's not what we're here for, to talk about that. This about Manny getting elected and that's all we're focused on."