MANILA, Philippines – Freshly retired boxing star Manny Pacquiao turned in his candidacy for the Philippine presidency on Friday as registration opened for candidates keen to lead a Southeast Asian nation badly hit by the pandemic and deep political conflict.
Election officials have put severe restrictions in place to prevent the October 1-8 registration period from attracting large crowds of political supporters and becoming hotbeds for coronavirus infections. In addition to the presidency and vice-presidency, the elections on 9.
The Philippines, considered the Asian bastion of democracy, has also experienced election campaigns and violence. In 2009 armed men from the family of the then governor of Maguindanao Province massacred 58 people, including journalists, in an attack on an electoral convoy that shocked the world.
About 3,000 police officers, including some in armored police vehicles, were stationed around the seaside convention complex in Manila, where presidential candidates were supposed to register. The area has been declared a no-fly and no-fishing zone.
When registering their candidacies, candidates can only bring up to three companions who had to undergo Covid-19 swab tests to prevent chaotic scenes of candidates with film stars, music bands and rowdy supporters from appearing in the past.
“We have really gone to great lengths to make sure the filing is sober,” said James Jimenez, spokesman for the electoral commission.
Still, hundreds of fans and supporters in face masks and with Pacquiao’s portrait and small Filipino flags lined the street that led to the heavily secured electoral registration center in Manila Bay to cheer his convoy on.
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Many expect the race to succeed the controversial President Rodrigo Duterte to become overcrowded and politically hostile. Pacquiao, former national police chief Panfilo Lacson, and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno have announced they will seek the presidency, and more are expected.
Pacquiao and Duterte were loyal allies until they had a high profile argument that year as election season approached. The two and their camps fought for control of the ruling party, and Duterte threatened to campaign against Pacquiao if the boxing legend failed to prove his remarks that corruption had worsened under the current government.
“Those who take advantage of the nation, steal, rob the Filipino nation, your happy days taking advantage of the government are numbered because if the Lord puts me there, I promise not only to the Filipino people, but my promise as well “God they all go to jail,” Pacquiao told reporters after registering his candidacy.
The 42-year-old senator announced his retirement from boxing on Wednesday after winning fans with his rags-to-riches story and legendary career.
Duterte, 76, accepted the ruling party’s nomination for Vice President, sparking a constitutional debate and shocking opponents who have long condemned him as a human rights disaster.
Filipino presidents are constitutionally limited to a single six-year term, and a constitutional expert has announced he will question Duterte’s candidacy in the Supreme Court, as a successful run for vice presidency would bring him back just one step before office.
Western United States-led governments and human rights activists have long raised the alarm over Duterte’s police crackdown on illegal drugs, which has killed more than 6,000 mostly minor drug suspects since he took office in mid-2016. The murders are being investigated by the International Criminal Court.
Though Duterte remains popular according to opinion polls, the drug killings and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to one of the worst economic recessions and widespread unemployment and starvation, are likely to be key issues of the election.
The Philippines have reported more than 2.5 million Covid-19 cases, with 38,164 deaths being the second worst number of pandemics in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.