ALABEL, PHILIPPINES // Overnight the tiny southern Philippine province of Sarangani has become the focus of international attention. That scrutiny has nothing to do with natural disasters, which is often the case in this disaster-prone South-east Asian country of 92 million. Rather, the focus is on one man - Manny Pacquiao who is known affectionately as "The Pac-Man".
The world's greatest pound-for-pound boxing champ in seven different weight divisions has hung up his gloves, at least for the time being. He has begun another fight, this time in the cut-and-thrust world of Philippine politics, where he is running for the lone congressional district of Sarangani in southern Mindanao. A poor rural backwater, Sarangani borders the provinces of South Cotabato in the west and Davao del Sur in the east and is split in two by Sarangani Bay.
While Mr Pacquiao basks in the adulation of his millions of Filipino fans it is no guarantee that his boxing prowess will translate into votes - especially in a province that is not his home. Mr Pacquiao and his entourage flew into General Santos City, next door, on Friday where he was greeted by thousands of adoring fans who lined the streets of this fishing city to greet their native son. It is not the first time Mr Pacquiao has tried his hand at politics. In the midterm elections of 2007 he was hammered by Darlene Antonino-Custodio in the fight for a congressional seat in the first district of South Cotabato. He lost 139,061 to 75,908.
This time he is taking on Roy Chiongbian, a local businessman, and a member of a powerful local political family. Mr Chiongbian is contesting the seat his brother, Erwin, has held for three terms. "It will be a harder battle than all the battles he has waged in the ring," Ronald Holmes, a political science professor at Manila's De La Salle University, said recently. "They [the public] might be passionate about him in boxing, but this does not necessarily translate into political support."
Mr Pacquiao, 31, grew up in poverty in General Santos and found his calling at an early age in the ring, which in turn made him an extremely rich man. The past two years alone he has made more than US$27 million (Dh99m) from his boxing. This does not include earnings from his recent fight with Ghana's Joshua Clottey in Texas or pay-per-view earnings. It has been reported that Mr Pacquiao will spend up to 400 million pesos (Dh39m) on his campaign, which officially kicked off on Friday in General Santos, where he was joined by the billionaire presidential candidate Senator Manny Villar and his vice-presidential running mate, Loren Legarda.
Mr Pacquiao is playing on his poor roots to strike a chord with the local voters, but it will be an uphill battle considering the province, which has 277,000 registered voters, owes everything to the Chiongbian clan. Mr Chiongbian's father, James, authored the law that created Sarangani province out of the former third political district of South Cotabato in 1992 and the family has run the province ever since.
"I know how my people have suffered because I suffered, too," Mr Pacquiao said. "Now it is time for a more serious fight. The people of my province are among the poorest. They have been underserved for too long." For his part, Mr Chiongbian said: "There is still a lot that can be done to improve the quality of life of our fellow Sarangans in education, health, agri-development and peace and order."
"Time is running out for Manny's campaign because he has been away training and he has to make up, saturate the whole Sarangani province," Mindaluz Gulle, executive director of Mr Pacquiao's campaign, said. Mr Pacquiao has been an important backer of Mr Villar, who persuaded him to join his Nacionalista Party, ending the boxer's alliance with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the president, and her coalition.
Mr Villar has made great use of Mr Pacquiao to bolster his own image, playing up the theme that they are both poor boys who fought their way to prominence but whose hearts are still with the country's downtrodden masses. On Friday rallies and motorcades were launched across the country for candidates competing for seats in Congress, provincial and municipal governments. Among the candidates vying for seats in Congress are Mrs Arroyo and Imelda Marcos, wife of the dictator who was forced from office during a non-violent people's revolt in 1986.
Mrs Marcos started her campaign for a return to Congress with a mass and a visit to the refrigerated crypt of her late husband, former president Ferdinand Marcos, in Batac town in Ilocos Norte province, 400km north of Manila. The flamboyant 80-year-old former first lady said she decided to come out of retirement from politics "for what is good and right" and to protect the legacy of her husband. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org