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Indonesia's opposition wants to review China-led rail project

Vice presidential candidate Uno says Chinese investment must create local jobs

Sandiaga Uno, the running mate for opposition presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, speaks in Jakarta on Nov. 15.

JAKARTA -- If the opposition wins Indonesia's presidential election next year, it will review the Chinese-led construction of a high-speed rail line and may cancel the project, vice presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno told reporters on Thursday.

The rail line connecting Jakarta and the city of Bandung is a signature policy for President Joko Widodo. But construction has been beset by delays and rising costs amid difficulties in land acquisition.

Widodo had hoped to claim the line, originally set to open next year, as a major achievement in his re-election campaign, but that effort could backfire if the opposition camp draws support with a promise to review the project.

"We will review and we will check whether [the project] has the right structure, is on the right terms, and we would ensure transparency," Uno, the running mate of opposition presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, said at the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club.

Uno said his camp lacks enough information to decide on the project yet, but added: "Once we complete our review, it could be a 'go' or 'no go.' It is as simple as that."

The latest polls show Widodo leading at 57.7% support, with the Subianto-Uno camp trailing at 32.3%.

Canceling the rail line would mirror neighbor Malaysia's resistance to Chinese-backed infrastructure deals under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir's government scrapped a rail project after taking office in May, raising concerns about excessive costs and debt to Beijing that could harm the country's finances.

Uno, founder of investment company Saratoga Investama Sedaya and the former Jakarta deputy governor, said that he did not oppose all Chinese investment and that Indonesia "needs to make sure" it is part of Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. But he said that Chinese involvement needed to come on the right terms.

"If it creates jobs for Indonesians, not for Chinese, I would [accept Chinese investment]," Uno said. The vice presidential candidate said that as a businessman, he built a power station with Chinese contractors.

"When I did inspections... even the coke came from China," he said. "I would still invite them, but at terms beneficial for Indonesians' jobs and with good quality."

His message is likely to resonate with voters calling for a change in the country's leadership. A theme song accompanying the campaign to replace the president takes a swipe at Widodo's "work, work, work" motto by saying "it is the foreign workers who work" while "the nation's children remain unemployed."

Uno said his camp did not want to talk about divisive issues, as he experienced a racially and religiously charged election firsthand when he ran for the Jakarta deputy governor's post in 2017. Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was defeated then by a candidate backed by Muslim extremists.

Purnama was later found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison.

Instead, the Subianto camp says it wants to make next year's presidential election a referendum on Indonesia's economy.

"We early on decided with Prabowo that this was going to be an economic platform that we will be focusing on -- jobs, prices and how we could grow our economy," he said. "A lot of people are asking how to stabilize prices, making [things] more affordable, and also how we could we create more jobs."

"Once the economy is solved, inequality is solved, I think we are in a much stronger position to face [the] religious intolerance that divides the country."

Both Indonesia's unemployment rate as well as its Gini coefficient, a measure of wealth distribution, have been improving in recent years.

The unemployment rate stood at 5.34% in August, down from 5.50% a year ago. Inflation also has been steady, hovering around the midrange of central bank's target of 2.5% to 4.5%.

Indonesia's Gini coefficient this year comes to 0.389, down marginally from the end of 2017, with 1 representing perfect wealth inequality and 0 perfect equality.

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