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Widodo leads Palu relief efforts, with eye on election

Indonesian president keen to project image of support amid criticism

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Palu twice in the week after an earthquake and tsunami in late September resulted in more than 2,000 fatalities. (Getty Images)

JAKARTA -- Despite criticism of the government for not doing enough in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Sulawesi in late September, President Joko Widodo's personal efforts to comfort survivors and be seen leading the army could help him maintain his support base ahead of next year's elections.

More than 2,000 people were killed in the disaster and the death toll is still expected to rise, as search and rescue teams plow through the rubble in areas that had been inaccessible due to a lack of fuel and damaged roads.

Jokowi, as the president is popularly known, flew into Palu, capital of Central Sulawesi and one of the worst affected areas, twice within a week of the disaster, keen to show his support for survivors and that he was in the thick of rescue efforts.

Nonetheless, survivors have criticized the lack of help they received and the scant aid supplies coming their way, according to numerous media reports. It was only four days after the earthquake and tsunami struck that the Indonesian government officially announced the acceptance of foreign aid, but only for certain supplies such as water purifiers and electricity generators.

Indonesia sits above the seismically volatile Pacific Ring of Fire, where 90% of all earthquakes strike and 75% of all active volcanoes are located.

The country is no stranger to natural disasters. Widodo's predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had to deal with such catastrophes from the beginning of his tenure; the December 2004 tsunami hit Banda Aceh just months after his administration took office.

Yudhoyono visited the province several times, but was criticized for a lack of clear direction in recovery efforts. The president's approval rating fell to 69% in January 2005, from 80% in November.

Widodo appears well aware of how a natural disaster could make or break his campaign for a second term, with the opposition group of Prabowo Subianto keenly scrutinizing every move made by the administration, despite both camps announcing a suspension to campaigning in the disaster areas.

The president was criticized for attending a lavish opening ceremony for the 18th Asian Games, which took place in Jakarta and Palembang shortly after a series of earthquakes struck the tourist island of Lombok, killing more than 500.

The president did not attend the closing ceremony in Jakarta, opting instead to watch a televised relay in Lombok with survivors.

"[Widodo] was seen handling the situation proactively with his visits [to Lombok]," said Ardian Sopa, researcher at polling company LSI-Denny JA. He said that of the 80% of respondents to a survey who were aware of the earthquake, 60% knew the president went to Lombok, of which 90% said they liked the fact that he had made the trip.

"So even though [this disaster] is a negative thing, by giving the public a perception that he is a proactive leader who pays attention on disasters, the effects on him are positive," Sopa said.

Symbolically, Widodo wore a camouflage jacket on his first visit to Palu, displaying that, as commander-in-chief of the National Armed Forces, he is in charge of rescue operations, according to a member of the ruling coalition.

Widodo appeared in a camouflage jacket on his initial visit to Palu on Sept. 30, highlighting his position as commander-in-chief of the National Armed Forces.    © Reuters

Some have blamed the Widodo administration for cutting the budget for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, or BNPB over the years. Its budget for this year stands at 742 billion rupiah ($48.8 million), an 80% drop from 2015.

This is despite Indonesia being named among the 33 countries and territories at highest risk of natural disasters by the United Nations University's World Risk Index.

In addition, the country was deemed to lack the infrastructure needed to facilitate swift rescue and aid operations, and as not having enough doctors and medical staff to treat survivors.

The high number of casualties in the Palu disaster was partly blamed on the failure of early tsunami warning systems to work properly. A network of 22 buoys that was deployed after the Aceh tsunami to assist early detection was found to have been defunct since 2012, due to vandalism and lack of maintenance.

But the opposition camp may hesitate to criticize the government over the system's failure.

"It might backfire on Prabowo," said Jun Honna, a professor at Japan's Ritsumeikan University and an expert in Indonesian politics. "The lack of disaster education as well as defunct early warning systems are a problem, but if the tsunami buoys were not working from 2012, this is still during Yudhoyono's time [as president]," Honna said.

Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party have aligned themselves with the Prabowo camp for the upcoming elections.

There have also been factions of anti-Widodo Islamic groups spreading theories that the spate of natural disasters Indonesia has endured in recent months is because Allah is angry with the president, who they deem to be not Muslim enough.

But experts said such identity politics, which were pivotal in ousting the incumbent in the Jakarta gubernatorial elections in 2017, would not be effective this time.

"With the choice of Ma'ruf Amin as vice president candidate, I think the escalation has been subdued. That is why campaign topics have shifted more toward economic issues -- which I think is positive," Sopa of LSI-Denny said.

Widodo is thought to have picked Amin, leader of the Indonesian Ulema Council and the country's top Muslim cleric, as his running mate to fend off allegations that he is not religious enough. Amin has stepped away from his duties while running for office.

Honna agreed that such criticism would have "little to no effect" on Widodo's campaign. "Provinces like Banten and West Java are important when it comes to Muslim votes, but Amin's appointment is having an effect on these areas," he said.

"Whether Jokowi's approval rating falls will depend on the economy. Should a further fall in the rupiah lead to inflation, angering his supporters in the low income base, then that has the potential to raise questions over his re-election hopes," he added.

Nikkei staff writer Erwida Maulia in Jakarta contributed to this article.

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