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Traffic stops in capital as thousands march through the streets to campaign amidst the economic downturn. The finance minister considers a second stimulus package, and opens a special tax office for billionaires. The health minister proposes ending mumps vaccinations due to mistrust of foreign drug companies.
Top News: Parliamentary elections are just over a week away and the 38 political parties vying for the 561 seats have taken to the streets en masse. The city of Jakarta has almost come to a standstill as April 9 approaches and party supporters march down major thoroughfares on bikes and in buses. A major Islamic political group, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), had 100,000 supporters turn out in central Jakarta on March 31.
Confusion over last minute election regulations from the National Election Commission has caused some concern. Most say the trouble, if any, will happen after the elections if losing parties challenge results in the courts or on the streets. One analyst told The Jakarta Post that it could be the “most troubled” election in the country’s history.
The major worry ahead of the election is the increasing violence in the westernmost province of Aceh. There, a peace deal signed in 2005 ended a 30-year separatist movement, and for the first time, local political parties are competing for national seats. A dozen or more grenade attacks in February and March by unknown assailants against Party Aceh — the political vehicle of the ex-rebel combatants — and against foreign aid workers have added to the tense atmosphere.
In Papua, another far-flung province where a low-level separatist movement has been fighting for independence for 40 years, a police officer was kidnapped and a security post attacked by rebel groups in March. Police said they expect separatist activity to increase ahead of elections.
Papua was further destabilized on March 19 by the return from exile of separatist movement founder Nicolas Jouwe, who returned at the invitation of the government in Jakarta. Jouwe said he would be willing to hold talks with the government, angering independence activists. Thousands took to the streets in the West Papua provincial capital, Jayapura. Security personnel arrested and then deported four Dutch reporters who filmed the protest. Foreign journalists have long been banned from traveling to Papua.
Jakarta’s ancient network of dams, levees and dikes caused a political firestorm when one of them, on the outskirts of the city, burst on March 28 killing about 200 people and leaving more than 10,000 homeless. Witnesses described it as a mini-tsunami. Politicians, meanwhile, are deflecting blame. Several major candidates, including the president, visited the site on the day of the disaster, promising to reform the public works department and renovate the dams, many of which were built by the Dutch colonial administration in the 1930s.
Money: Indonesia’s central bank slashed its economic growth forecast to between 3 percent to 4 percent for this year as evidence that the global economic crisis is beginning to affect the country more deeply.
A $6 billion stimulus package passed by parliament last month was supposed to soften the blow, but it is being implemented slowly, and is most likely too small. The finance ministry, led by the revered Sri Mulyani, has indicated that it is considering a second stimulus package but a decision won’t be made until after the elections.
Meanwhile, exports are predicted to fall by between 30 percent and 50 percent in the coming months, and layoffs around the country continue. Still, Indonesia is not as bad off as its neighbors and is, in fact, weathering the storm better than any of the other ASEAN nations.
March 31 is tax day in Indonesia. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who very publicly paid his taxes in a PR stunt aimed at educating the country about paying taxes (many people here still don’t), announced the opening of a special tax office for Indonesian billionaires.
Mulyani said the country is too dependent on collecting corporate taxes and needed to work harder to collect personal taxes, hence the new office. She also said the office would help track and manage the wealthy, some of whom surely achieved billionaire status in part by skirting the country’s confusing tax codes.
Elsewhere: Indonesia’s controversial health minister, Siti Fadillah Supari, again made headlines when she announced March 24 that she wanted to stop vaccinating children against meningitis, mumps and some other diseases, saying that foreign drug companies are using the country as a testing ground.
She encouraged the country’s medical institutions to carry out their own virus research free of foreign funding to avoid exploitation from developed countries and the possibility of a future biological attack against the world’s largest Muslim nation. Her statement comes on the heels of reports that Indonesia is struggling to contain several preventable childhood diseases.
The health minister has long been suspicious of other countries. In 2007, she announced she would boycott the World Health Organization’s virus sharing system, which is 50 years old, by refusing to share bird flu samples, thus seriously hampering the organization’s research on the disease.