Thousands of people including activists and clergy gathered at the Philippine capital’s main park on Monday in a rally to denounce the “pork barrel” system which they blame for spreading corruption.
Organizers said almost 20,000 people joined the rally but observers said the crowd was much smaller, with police putting it at about 5,000 at its peak.
The crowd, which included nuns, priests and lawyers, was significantly smaller than a similar rally over the same issue last year which observers said drew at least 250,000.
That rally, called through a vigorous social media campaign, had captured the outrage following reports of a scam involving tens of millions of dollars from the “pork barrel” funds of congressmen.
Such allocations are supposed to pay for the pet projects of legislators but large amounts were allegedly syphoned off. Three powerful senators have already been jailed over the controversy.
Influential Manila archbishop Cardinal Luis Tagle praised those taking part in the “march against pork” in a statement posted on a church social media site.
“I extend my greetings and solidarity. Thank you for making democracy alive and active. Thank you for advancing decency in public life,” the senior church leader said.
Peachy Bretana, an official of the Scrap Pork Network which was one of the organizers, told ABS-CBN television the issue was non-partisan.
“This is not about parties. This definitely is not anti-administration. This is pro-people,” she said.
But many of the protesters at the rally used the issue to attack President Benigno Aquino, whom they accused of abetting the pork barrel system and of seeking a second term despite being limited by law to only one term.
“No to pork barrel. No to term extension,” the placards read as protesters carried an effigy of Aquino as a pig.
Aquino, who was elected in 2010 on an anti-corruption platform, has seen his approval ratings dip amid accusations that his allies are among the beneficiaries of the pork barrel system.
The president did not directly address his critics. But speaking at an event at the military cemetery, he called on the public “to remain vigilant against those who seek to sow doubt and lies” and spread “baseless accusations”.