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Manny Pacquiao Declares 'Landslide' Congressional Win in Philippines

May 10, 2010 – 9:46 PM
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Nancy Gay

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Manny PacquiaoGENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines -- Manny Pacquiao. Congressman in the Republic of the Philippines.

The current WBO welterweight boxing champion and seven-time title holder scored the most personally satisfying win of his life in his birthplace in the country's national elections early Tuesday morning, soundly defeating a heavily favored candidate, Roy Chiongbian, from an entrenched billionaire clan to win a seat in the Philippines Congress representing the province of Sarangani on the island of Mindanao.

By doing so, Pacquiao, 31, becomes the first professional boxer to hold national public office while still active in the ring. After his victory in the Philippines' first fully electronic national elections was deemed largely official by early Tuesday morning, Pacquiao felt confident enough to declare victory over Chiongbian, 61.

Earlier, as election results came into his campaign office, the country's most famous athlete had no doubt.

For, even though the final vote tallies weren't complete, Pacquiao's approximately 90,000 votes out of 125,000 registered voters made it mathematically impossible for the boxing hero to lose.

"This is the biggest achievement of Manny's life. More than any boxing match," said Pacquiao's adviser, Michael Koncz, adding that Pacquiao will make an official proclamation of victory at 11 a.m local time Tuesday.

"It's a landslide!" an ecstatic Pacquiao, clad in jeans, sneakers and a Lacoste polo shirt, said excitedly 90 minutes after the polls closed nationwide Monday at 7 p.m., marking the conclusion of an electronic voting process that was surprisingly smooth despite scattered reports of violent uprisings, random attacks and at least six killings during the final days of voting.

Widespread campaign violence and murders have marred and disrupted previous national elections in this country.

Pacquiao's confidence Monday night stemmed from polling results relayed directly to him on mobile phones and powerful two-way radios by his poll watchers stationed throughout Sarangani's 379 clustered precincts. All of them were instructed to read results as they were reported electronically to the Philippines Commission on Elections, or Comelec.

Pacquiao, along with other Sarangani candidates running on his People's Champ Movement (PCM) party ticket, packed his campaign headquarters at a small house just outside the General Santos City center.

Outside, you'd never know the house contained a computerized nerve center of flat screen monitors, multiple computer banks and walls covered with detailed precinct maps and specific campaign strategies for each area.

Defeated soundly in his previous attempt at public office, a poorly run 2007 congressional campaign in the province of South Cotabato that saw him lose to the Antonino-Custodio political clan that runs General Santos City, Pacquiao was determined to conduct a more sound, organized campaign this time.

A well-known ally of outgoing (and unpopular) president Gloria Arroyo, Pacquiao ensured he would successfully challenge the Chiongbians by pouring more than $1 million of his own money (in U.S. dollars) into a highly sophisticated campaign, one that also relied on grass roots rallies and -- in some cases -- financial incentives that would encourage his desperately poor constituents to vote for him and his PCM ticket.

Pacquiao selected a province further south, Sarangani, the birthplace of his wife, Jinkee, for this congressional campaign, and he laid his bets that his celebrity and promises of helping the poor rise to self-sufficiency would resonate with voters.

It did, by an overwhelming margin.

While Top Rank boss Bob Arum excitedly called out results Monday night at the PCM campaign center, he also said he expected Pacquiao would enter the boxing ring again on Nov. 13. Would it be against Floyd Mayweather Jr.?

Arum wouldn't say.

"I'm not here to negotiate a fight," Arum said breathlessly. "This night is all about Manny accomplishing his dream, to help his people make a better life."

Besides, that much-anticipated bout will require plenty of negotiation, something Arum wasn't interested in while his favorite client was celebrating political victory in the next room.

An increasingly confident Arum, however, beamed when Pacquiao burst into the room with more positive results.

"Mr. Congressman!" Pacquiao said excitedly, dancing into the room.

At Arum's request, a local reporter called Roy Chiongbian's nephew and made an offer: concede by 9:30 p.m., two ringside tickets to Pacquiao's next fight.

Chiongbian laughed, but politely refused the offer.

A midnight visit to Chiongbian's home in General Santos City found the favored candidate asleep. He had called it a night.

Throughout the Pacquiao campaign office, cheers erupted when a new result was reported. As night turned into the early hours of Tuesday, voting results slowly trickled in by mobile phone. By 2 a.m., most of the Pacquiao campaign office had turned in for the night as official Comelec reporting ceased until 8 a.m. Tuesday.

"I don't know how to explain, how happy I am," said Zaldy Du, a local businessman and trader who offered his home to Pacquiao for use as the campaign nerve center. "I am accepting no money for this. No payment for the power. I'm doing it because I'm the No. 1 boxing fan of Manny Pacquiao."

Pacquiao will be sworn into office in late June and can fulfill his congressional duties in July. That will allow him to continue training for the planned November fight.

By mid-afternoon Monday, during the first fully automated national election in Philippines history, the 17,000 candidates for various offices were at the mercy of several elements: hot weather, long lines, glitches in the newly installed voting machines and -- of course -- emerging reports of fraud, vote-buying and general mayhem.

Pacquiao, however, was busy at his General Santos City mansion, personally speaking to his poll watchers at the 379 precincts at schools and public meeting places throughout his area, hoping to get a sense of how the voters -- most of them desperately poor coconut farmers, tuna fishermen or laborers who exist on less than $2 a day -- were leaning.

"It's 80-20 [percent] in my favor." Pacquiao, 31, announced, beaming with confidence that he was about to bury Chiongbian, whose billionaire family owns most of the businesses and the power plant in Sarangani and has been in control for at least 30 years. It was about 4 p.m., and Pacman the politician and underdog believed he was on the verge of a knockout.

But it wouldn't be an election in the Philippines if not for corruption, even after the widely publicized $7.2 billion peso ($15.5 million U.S.) nationwide installation of the Smartmatic electronic voting machines that would record votes on smartcards. All the while, widespread eyewitness reports of bribery of the simplest kind were rampant.

How do you render an electronic voting machine useless? Pay off poor, illiterate voters in the remote regions of Mindanao Island and other areas, and simply remove them from the voting populace. Rival candidates would round up these voters, pay them $1,000 pesos (about $21.50 U.S.) and dip their index fingers in indelible ink.

Manny's Biggest Fight: FanHouse in the PhilippinesThat ink-stained finger -- the mark of a person who had turned in a ballot -- would immediately disqualify the would-be voter. Many of these prospective voters didn't learn of the fraud until they showed up at polling stations.

In some voting areas, machines were burned or disabled to disrupt voting.

Other voters were simply being paid to vote for one party or another. The going rate: either a $1,000 peso bill ($21.50 U.S.) or a 50-pound bag of rice worth about $27.

A visit to two distinctly different voting precincts Monday afternoon in Pacquaio's voting province, the municipality of Alabel and the tiny village of Malandag, in the barangay (section) of Malungon, revealed plenty of funny business taking place.

At the Malandag Central Elementary School in the Pacquaio-friendly municipality of Malungon (48,270 registered voters), people queued in long lines in a driving rainstorm outside two voting machines housed in the classrooms. That precinct of about 950 voters was overwhelmingly for Pacman.

"There is a feeling that Pacquiao is one of us, one of the people, so we want to choose the right candidate to help us and that's Manny," said Cynthia Leandres, a health care worker. She carried an umbrella with the logo "Totoong ("Truly") Manny Pacquiao."

In Chiongbian-favored Alabel, with 41,279 registered voters in an area surrounded by Chiongbian-owned banana and coconut plantations, it was harder to find a vocal Pacman supporter. Some people whispered that they had voted for the People's Champ.

Loyalty here came at a price.

"I've heard reports of (vote-buying) here, yes," said Liberal Party poll watcher Eugenia Manacio of Alabel. At her voting site, the expensive Smartmatic voting machine was plugged into the main power supply of the elementary school. When the daily series of brownouts, or power failures, turned the building dark in mid-afternoon, a motorcycle battery connected to the voting machine as a backup power source turned it on again.

Eugenia ManacioAsked whether people in Alabel would vote for Pacquiao, Manacio (pictured right) was skeptical but wouldn't rule out the boxer's upset victory. "The Chiongbians are very nice people," she said, "very good people."

An outspoken Chiongbian supporter, Roldan E. Gerodius, was incredulous when asked whether he would vote for the country's sporting hero.

"No. We all vote for Chiongbian! We love him. Nobody can compare," Gerodius said.

Why not vote for Pacquiao?

"Manny has been deceived by the people," Gerodius replied.

Apparently not.

In 2007, Pacquaio -- who gives daily handouts of money and food to poor townspeople outside the front doors of his homes throughout Mindanao -- felt that way in defeat, abandoned at election time by the people he works so hard to help in his home country.

In 2010, Pacquiao's people finally gave back to him.

They made him their congressman.
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