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Govt postpones rice aid delivery amid allegations of President's bias

Jakarta Post - February 8, 2024

Deni Ghifari, Jakarta – The government has decided to halt rice aid distribution to all parts of the country starting on Thursday after rampant allegations that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration has been directing various forms of social aid (Bansos) to persuade people to vote for presidential frontrunner Prabowo Subianto.

National Food Agency (Bapanas) head Arief Prasetyo Adi said the pause in the distribution process would take place from Feb. 8 to 14 to refute allegations that the government is politicizing food aid during the campaign season.

"The government's food aid will be temporarily halted [to prove] that there is no politicization of food aid distribution. The pause is to respect the general election process and to update data," he said on Wednesday as quoted by Antara News.

In a formal letter to state-owned logistics company Perum Bulog, Bapanas instructed the company to stop the distribution of rice stocks and government aid because of the national holiday of Prophet Muhammad's Ascension Day on Feb. 8, which will be followed by the election's quiet period from Feb. 11 to 13 and polling day on Feb. 14. The distribution will resume on Feb. 15.

President Jokowi and his family have been heavily criticized since the Constitutional Court amended the minimum-age requirement for presidential candidates, which enabled his eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka to run as Prabowo's running mate.

The criticism grew louder as Jokowi made public photos of lunching and dining with Defense Minister Prabowo. Despite being an outgoing president, Jokowi has spent his time on an extensive tour across Java, especially Central Java, to distribute Bansos, in the form of rice, cooking oil and other staple foods, in the past two months, which coincided with the election campaign season.

Family support for Gibran

Speculation is rife that Jokowi has tried to use his high profile and approval rating to support Prabowo's campaign, although during his Bansos tour he has not explicitly encouraged people to vote for Prabowo, the man that he defeated twice in the previous elections.

The President was reported to the Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) after First Lady Iriana sparked controversy for allegedly performing a two-finger salute, widely used to represent the Prabowo-Gibran ticket number on the upcoming ballot, as she stepped out of a presidential car onto a busy street in Central Java on Jan. 23.

Other family members of Jokowi, including his sisters and in-laws, have joined Prabowo-Gibran campaign events.

President Jokowi has continued to deny that he is campaigning for Prabowo, while emphasizing that the law allows a president to support his chosen election candidates.

"I would like to reemphasize that the president is allowed by law to campaign [...] but if the question is whether I am campaigning. My answer is no," he said on Wednesday during his visit to Batubara regency, North Sumatra, which was uploaded on the Presidential Secretariat's YouTube channel.

All out in Bansos?

Despite the President's denial of his alleged campaigning for Prabowo, the Finance Ministry has been ordered to reallocate Rp 50 trillion (US$3.17 billion) from other ministries and government institutions to finance the various forms of social Bansos through a mechanism called automatic adjustment.

The ministry has refused to disclose the purpose of the budget allocation, but only said that the President had personally ordered the budget reallocation to serve as a buffer against the economic impacts of heightened geopolitical risk.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Coordinating Economic Minister Airlangga Hartarto, who is also the chairman of the Golkar Party, which supports Prabowo-Gibran, said when asked whether it was used for social aid that the adjustment was "one of the methods" to make room for greater fertilizer subsidies for farmers.

According to media reports, the government has intensified allocation of various forms of Bansos since November.

The government has distributed Bansos in cash and in-kind, such as rice or cooking oil, to all parts of the country, including that distributed by Jokowi, Airlangga and Trade Minister Zulkifli Hasan, who is the chairman of the National Mandate Party (PAN), during their visits to the regions.

After delivering the Bansos packages, Airlangga and Zulkifli asked the recipients to say "thank you Pak (Mr.) Jokowi" on camera.

Origin of rice aid

The government has been handing out 10 kilograms of rice every month to some 21,000 households, to fight rice inflation stemming from El Nino and export bans by certain countries.

The program itself started in March and was initially planned to just last a few months, before being extended multiple times and is now set to end in June of this year, the month of the possible election runoff.

The rice for the aid comes from the government rice reserves, which have been mounting since Jokowi opted to import more than 3 million tonnes in 2023. This year, the government has sought to import another 2.5 million tonnes to maintain the government rice reserves.

On top of the rice aid, the government renewed a cash transfer program in January that granted Rp 200,000 per month to 18.8 million households until March. It said the policy was intended to counter increased food prices. The disbursement is scheduled this month, in which each recipient is planned to receive all Rp 600,000 to help cover their food expenses in the first three months of the year.

Last year, the government disbursed similar aid in November and December 2023, citing El Nino's impact on food prices.

The government has yet to decide whether it will also halt disbursement of the cash aid programs as polling day draws near.

The social protection allocation for 2024 has been set at Rp 496.8 trillion, far larger than the Rp 468 trillion in 2021 but very close to the Rp 498 trillion in 2020.

Facing backlash

University of Indonesia (UI) Faculty of Economics dean Teguh Dartanto told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday that disbursing hefty social aid during a campaign season was a "peculiarity or irregularity that arouses suspicion".

Center of Economics and Legal Studies (CELIOS) executive director Bhima Yudhistira told the Post that the government's resolution to adjust the state budget for Bansos might "raise concerns regarding manipulation of budgeting policy".

Academic communities, including those from the University of Indonesia and Gadjah Mada University, have also expressed their objections to the alleged maneuvers made by the President and his aides in the past week. They have called on the government to remain committed to holding a free and fair election.

"Abusing power for the interests of the oligarchic elites will only lead to the failure of our sustainable development, the stagnation of economic growth, deepening poverty and the increase of wealth inequality," said Ganjar Kurnia, a Padjadjaran University professor and head of the academic senate.

Source: https://asianews.network/govt-postpones-rice-aid-delivery-amid-allegations-of-presidents-bias