MANILA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Filipinos angry at official corruption marched through the center of Manila and other cities to demand the abolition of a misused fund for legislators’ pet projects, the biggest protest aimed at Benigno Aquino’s government.
Aquino came to office in 2010 on a good governance and anti-corruption platform and consistently enjoys popularity ratings of more than 70 percent, but the Philippines remains one of the most corrupt countries in East Asia.
Protesters, responding to a call to wear white, converged on Manila’s largest park angry at the misuse of “pork barrel” funds under the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).
The money is frequently channeled to projects solely to impress voters, though many have turned out to be non-existent.
Aquino said on Friday the government would plug leaks in the fund, an announcement appeared timed to preempt Monday’s march, and a presidential spokesman said the protesters and government wanted the same thing.
“The message is clear - we are on the same side. We are against corruption,” spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters.
But the protesters disagreed. Church and civic groups, health workers, students and entire families ignored Aquino’s promise to overhaul the PDAF and called for its abolition.
“Just transfer the funds to department agencies delivering services,” said Jun Bernandino, a quadriplegic who joined the march. “They are lawmakers, not service providers. Give the agencies enough budget to deliver the services the people need.”
Police said around 60,000 protesters thronged Luneta Park, some wearing pig masks and headgear. Others carried banners saying “Scrap pork barrel” and “No to pork”.
Organizers had hoped for a million to join the protest which is not expected to hurt Aquino’s popularity.
Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, the charismatic archbishop of Manila who many thought a strong candidate to become pope during this year’s Vatican conclave, joined the protest saying it was time for the government to show greatness.
About 5,000 left-wing rallyists took the protest to the nearby presidential palace while a few thousand stayed at the park waiting for a free concert organized by one of the protest groups. About 1,500 police were deployed, but no incidents were reported.
Civic groups called the protest after a state audit showed some lawmakers had funneled 10 billion pesos ($226 million) in total to non-existent projects and groups under the previous government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has since been charged with plunder and electoral fraud.
($1 = 44.3 pesos)
Additional reporting by Rolando Ng; Editing by Nick Macfie