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Indonesian economy outperforms expectations on election's eve

Parliamentary elections kick off vote-buying and remote violence; Suharto's son-in-law gains ground in presidential quest; a $6 billion stimulus promises better infrastructure; Jakarta Buddha Bar shut down; and Balinese defy a Muslim ban on yoga.

Top News: Campaigning for Indonesia’s national elections officially began this week after commitments were signed by all political parties to maintain peace and order. Indonesians across the archipelago can now look forward to three weeks of free handouts of cash, fried rice and t-shirts. Such vote-buying is only one of several potential problems the country will face during its first ever direct parliamentary elections on April 9. Media Indonesia reports that police are gearing up for possible election-related violence, deploying 1.4 million security personnel. Already, in the remote and restive provinces of Aceh and Papua there have been reports of attacks between rival groups.


A whopping 38 polticial parties are contesting this year’s parliamentary poll, offering up more than 12,000 candidates for the 560 seats in Parliament. The April polls will go a long way to setting up July’s presidential contest. A party, or coalition of parties, wishing to put forward a candidate must win 20 percent of the vote or 25 percent of the seats on April 9.


Everyone agrees that the incumbent, reform-minded ex-general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party are the clear front-runners in the presidential election. But the recent defection of his vice-president, Yusuf Kalla, who took with him the support of the once powerful Golkar Party, might make for a more fiercely contested election.


The party of another ex-general, Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of the country’s longtime authoritarian ruler, Suharto, is also gaining ground. Prabowo, who has stood accused of allowing the kidnapping of democracy activists in the late 90s and of atrocities in East Timor, has recast himself as a champion of the poor. The surprising endorsement from former president Abdurrahman Wahid, who is also one of Indonesia’s most respected Islamic leaders, is sure to help Prabowo’s unlikely quest. The backing of his billionnaire brother might help as well.


In other news, the fate of the Rohingya - a Muslim minority in Myanmar - was again addressed as Yudhoyono received Myanmar’s prime minister, General Thein Sein this week. About 400 Rohingya washed up on Indonesia’s shores in February, sparking an international outcry over their treatment by Myanmar authorities. Thein Sein said he would welcome the refugees back if it could be proved they actually came from Myanmar – a difficult proposition considering they are denied citizenship and passports by the ruling junta. In the end, the leaders decided to revisit the subject during an April Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting. The two men did, however, agree to increase bilateral trade.


Money: Indonesian officials continue to be optimistic in face of the global economic downturn. President Yudhoyono said he expects the economy to grow by 4.5 percent this year, provided a $6 billion stimulus package passed by parliament last month goes into effect next month without bureaucratic delays. His estimate is more optimistic than the central bank’s, which revised its outlook from 5 percent to 4 percent.


The president said the stimulus package would be used for irrigation and flood prevention projects, airport, seaport and railway projects, electricty projects, low-cost apartment development and agriculture projects – all of which he said would create jobs.


Though Indonesia has not spiraled out of control as some initially feared and is in fact one the best performing countries in the region, businesses continue to shed jobs. Layoffs have left about 240,000 workers unemployed between October and March, according to the Indonesian Employers Association, far more than government estimates of 30,000.


Maybe Germany’s Mercedes-Benz and Japan’s Honda can help. Both announced this month they would make Indonesia their production base for multi-purpose vehicles, igniting a brief moment of glee within the country’s automotive industry.


High profile corruption cases continue to soar across the front pages of Indonesia’s major newspapers. The Corruption Eradication Commission, however, received a startling blow earlier this month when the director of a state-owned company, a key witness in a corruption case, was gunned down in Jakarta. The deputy director of the Corruption Eradication Commission said it was the first instance of a witness being killed, a disquieting reminder of the Suharto days, when such killings were common.


Elsewhere: Sumatran tigers killed nine people over the last month, sparking concerns among conservationists that there would be a backlash against the rare animal. Clashes between farmers and elephants have also made headlines as did the castration of a man by a horse. The increased violence between man and animal here is thought to be the direct result of illegal logging, which environmentalists believe is forcing dangerous animals into populated areas.


Wealthy hipsters in Jakarta are beset with grief after the forced closure of the Buddha Bar only a month after its grand opening. The Buddha Bar is an international institution and its arrival in Jakarta was originally touted as evidence of the city’s growing coolness. But its depictions of large smiling Buddhas and the sale of Buddha snow globes and other kitch trinkets has upset the city’s Buddhists.


In other religious intolerance news: Bali, which is mostly Hindu, held an international festival celebrating yoga just one month after the powerful Islamic Ulema Council banned the ancient practice. It is not the first time the Balinese have stood in open opposition to Ulema Council fatwas.