by Alito L. Malinao
MANILA, Aug. 25 (Xinhua) -- Thousands of residents of Metro Manila on Monday signed a manifesto, called "people's initiative, " to force the administration of President Benigno Aquino III to finally abolish the priority development assistance fund (PDAF), popularly known here as pork barrel.
Police in Manila estimated at least 5,000 attended the mass action at the Quirino Grandstand at the Luneta Park complex for the signing of the manifesto.
But the militant group, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Nationalist Alliance), the main organizer of the protest movement, said it was able to gather some 20,000 anti-pork supporters.
Monday's protest was aimed at gathering some 6 million signatures as part of nationwide campaign to support a people's initiative bill that would scrap the pork barrel system.
The pork barrel system, copied from the U.S., is a lump sum appropriation in the national budget whose release is determined by members of the legislature supposedly for local government projects. But since its inception, a large portion of the pork barrel fund has been diverted by unscrupulous politicians to their own pockets.
Three incumbent senators -- Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla -- are now facing plunder charges for their alleged involvement in the diversion of pork barrel funds from the intended beneficiaries to bogus non-government organizations (NGOs) with the money allegedly finally ending up in their own bank accounts. The three senators, who have been suspended from the Senate, are now in jail in a military camp in suburban Manila along with businesswoman Janet Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the scam.
Under Philippine laws, the three senators, who have all denied the charges filed against them, cannot be released on bail unless ordered by the Sandiganbayan, the graft court.
On the eve of a massive protest, Malacanang, the seat of the Philippine government, maintained that the graft-ridden pork barrel had been scrapped.
"We disagree that the pork barrel system remains in the 2015 NEP (National Expenditure Program) submitted by the administration to Congress," deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad also "categorically" declared that the pork barrel no longer existed in the present budgeting system.
But Bayan Muna (Country First) Representative Neri Colmenares said Aquino still enjoys the "fattest pork" in the budget but disguised under some other forms of fund.
Colmenares also said Congress practices a new mechanism of asking for pork, even after the Supreme Court junked as unconstitutional PDAF at the height of the pork barrel scam.
According to Colmenares, the people's initiative against pork barrel is meant to criminalize the use of pork barrel funds including the president's capacity to "impound the funds or realign them after Congress already passed the General Appropriations Act."
The opposition legislator was referring to Aquino's outlawed Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), a savings-impounding mechanism meant to pump-prime the economy.
Under the proposed people's initiative bill, pork barrel is defined as "a lump-sum public fund with sole discretion given to the president, legislator or group of legislators, or any public officer on how it will be spent."
"The exercise of discretion by public officers relates to the allocation, release or use of these public funds, the identification or selection of projects, implementers or beneficiaries, or any or a combination of or all of these," the bill says.
In a people's initiative, the goal is to collect at least 5.2 million signatures representing at least 10 percent of registered voters nationwide for the bill to become law. The number should also represent at least 3 percent of voters in each legislative district.
But Valte said the way some of the protesters defined pork barrel was "so broad" that it covered even "funds that are obviously not pork, like the calamity and contingency funds."
Valte pointed to the proposed 2.6 trillion pesos (594 billion U. S. dollars) budget for 2015, which "disaggregated lump sums as far as practicable without adversely affecting [the] government's ability to respond to the people's needs in extraordinary or unforeseen circumstances."
Malacanang earlier justified the inclusion of a 501 million pesos (11.6 million U.S. dollars) lump-sum item in next year's budget, the Special Purpose Fund, saying that doing so was a " best management practice," which was also done by private companies.
"Based on established management practice, it is customary that a certain portion of the annual budget is set aside for contingency expenditures that are essentially variable and not amenable to precise determination at the time of budget preparation," said Communications Secretary Herminio.