Amid Protests, Jakarta Targets Poor

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia's government jacked up fuel prices on Saturday, sparking protests, but some $1.5 billion of cash handouts intended to cushion the blow for poor families could turn out to be a savvy move, politically and economically.

With parliamentary and presidential elections next year, the issue of fuel subsidies has proved a tricky one for the government because of the risk of widespread social unrest if fuel and food prices rise sharply.

Soaring global oil prices have forced Indonesia to spend billions of dollars on fuel subsidies, which the government said mainly benefit the wealthy rather than the poor -- and at the expense of spending on health, education, and infrastructure.

A cash handout scheme, which came into effect Saturday in several big cities, is intended to pass on some of the savings on fuel subsidies to about 19 million poor families, to help offset the rise in fuel and food prices.

Political parties that criticize the cash handouts risk appearing anti-poor in a country where millions live on less than $2 a day, some analysts said.

Indonesia is not alone in being forced into a corner by record crude oil prices. Taiwan said it was abolishing price controls on gasoline and diesel, while India and Malaysia are also poised to take action. But strong demand from China, which is resisting lifting retail prices, means that global oil prices are likely to remain high.

Several protests took place on Saturday, in Jakarta and other parts of the country. About 100 students in Surabaya, Indonesia's second-biggest city, clashed with police and at least four students were wounded, Metro TV reported.