The “Million People March” called to protest the misuse of the congressional pork barrel fund proved to be a disappointment in more ways than one.
First, the million people targeted by the march’s nearly anonymous organizers failed to show up at Rizal Park to validate high expectations, that the outrage depicted in mass media reports did reflect a powerful undercurrent of public revulsion against the pork barrel system as a mechanism for the distribution of government patronage resources to finance public works and livelihood projects across the nation.
Police estimated the turnout at Rizal Park at between 80,000 and 100,000—far below the size of mass protests against government since the 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship. Consequently, the number of people who flooded Edsa in that bloodless revolution, estimated at easily more than a million, has become the benchmark of a successful overthrow of a regime: for example, that of Marcos in 1986 and of Joseph Estrada in 2001.
True, the Aug. 26 March was the biggest protest rally to take place under the Aquino administration, but it cannot be denied that—based on media reports on the corruption surrounding the alleged diversion of some P10 billion of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the official title of the pork barrel, to NGOs controlled by Janet Lim-Napoles with the connivance of some senators and House members—the intensity of public condemnation of pork barrel abuse was high and the public clamor to abolish the pork barrel system was broad.
The clamor comes from various sectors of civil society, ranging from the media (whose investigative reports on the pork barrel pillage started the ball rolling for the abolition of pork), the Catholic bishops, business chambers, the academic community and the do-gooder organizations. And this clamor cannot be ignored by the sitting government without putting itself at risk of being deposed by some kind of people power or by impeachment.
In the face of overwhelming demand to abolish the PDAF, the government has been paying lip service through tokenism, such as the announcement last Friday that President Aquino would abolish the PDAF but not his own pork barrel, the Special Purpose Funds, and the disclosure by Budget Secretary Florencio Abad that the P25.2 billion allocation for the PDAF would stay in the proposed P2.268-trillion national budget for 2014.
These actions were like flaunting the red cape at the raging bull of public opinion. And yet the march of a million on Monday, despite the anger at the pork barrel, did not call for President Aquino’s resignation. He was not the target of the march, although the administration had decided to keep the pork barrel. The marchers took to the streets denouncing an inanimate object—the reviled pork barrel system—not the head of government who has oversight responsibilities for the proper disbursement of public funds intended for the general public good. The march lusted for the heads of senators and congressmen linked to the fund diversion by affidavits submitted by whistle blowers consisting of former employees of Napoles’ group of NGOs. This was unlike the people power demonstrations in 1986 and 2001, which were directed at heads of government accused of corruption and abuse of power.
It is not surprising that the turnout at the march was disappointing and many didn’t join the march bandwagon after they sensed that their protests would be an exercise in futility following the President’s statement of Aug. 26, the day of the march. In a speech commemorating National Heroes Day, days after declaring the abolition of the PDAF, the President shifted the focus to blame making. He said: “We will do everything we can to identify and hold accountable all those who have conspired to besmirch what is otherwise a noble cause, that is the PDAF. We will not allow anyone to be manipulated to feed on the greed of a few. We will strive to make sure that the mistakes of the past won’t happen again to ensure the proper spending of the people’s money.”
With this statement, it is not surprising that a number of people who wanted to join the march began thinking that they would not be part of a witch hunt to indict people who would be tagged by the Department of Justice and the National Bureau of Investigation for criminal prosecution, while the President insisted on keeping the pork barrel—the source of the corruption in the leakage of public funds. A number of people were heard to be dejected by these remarks of the President. One of the disgusted protesters was reported by media as saying: Enough of that rubbish. It’s all talk. Let’s maintain the rage. It does not end today.
Malacañang announced the formation of an Inter-agency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council (IAGCC) that “would investigate the misuse of the PDAF, prosecute those who have misused it and recover assets that have been wrongfully taken” after the abolition.
“After the abolition, there will be a new process to make sure each district and sector gets a fair share of the budget for projects, while being transparent and less prone to abuse,” the Palace explained.
To which someone replied, “It’s like being pickpocketed.”