Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Monday, 6 July 2009 00:01 UK

Economy dominates Indonesia election

By Karishma Vaswani
Correspondent, BBC News, Jakarta

Mid-afternoon in the canteen of Universitas Indonesia, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and the hall is packed with young students, looking over their notes, or sharing a coffee with their friends.

Tamara Tirtajaya
I've sent out applications to over 50 companies, but not one of them has replied
Tamara Tirtajaya

This is where some of the best and brightest minds of the country are educated.

Getting admission into this university is extremely tough. Thousands of students are turned away every year.

A degree from Universitas Indonesia, or UI as it is more commonly known, has long been considered a ticket to success.

But these days, when jobs are hard to come by, many of UI's young graduates are struggling to find work.

In the corner of the busy, bustling canteen, a group of young men and women swap cigarettes, and play a loud game of gin-rummy.

Amongst them is Tamara Tirtajaya, 25, Although she is a graduate, she has been looking for work for the last six months without any luck.

"I've sent out applications to over 50 companies, but not one of them has replied," she says, puffing on her cigarette.

"All of us here are in the same position. All my friends are finding it tough to get a job. It's really difficult out there."

Coming home

Although Indonesia has posted strong economic growth of more than 6% for the last two years, unemployment is a huge problem.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
President Yudhoyono is deemed stable and cautious.

It is estimated that more than 2 million Indonesians enter the labour market every year and there just are not enough jobs being created for them to fill.

That has led to a jobless rate of 8.25%, considerably higher than that of its regional neighbours.

And the worry is that with the global financial crisis hitting the shores of countries such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, millions of Indonesia's migrant labour force will have to leave their jobs in those countries and come home to an even more difficult economic environment.

That is one reason why the economy is a huge issue amongst voters here, as they go to the polls this week.

Politicians under fire

The economy is one of the key platforms that all of Indonesia's presidential candidates have been campaigning on, with each offering different styles of economic management to try and win over voters.

Presidential candidate and current vice president, Jusuf Kalla, holds a dialogue with a group of voters while campaigning in Jakarta
Vice President Kalla says he will protect Indonesia's resources.

The incumbent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is known for his stable and cautious approach to the economy.

Many credit him for picking the right people in his cabinet to help steer the Indonesian economy through this financial crisis.

He has chosen the central bank governor Boediono as his running mate, a technocrat widely known for his cool and calm approach to regulating monetary policy.

But Mr Yudhoyono and Mr Boediono have been criticised by their opponents for their free market policies, and been accused of kowtowing to the West.

'Nation of errand boys'

The current vice president, Jusuf Kalla, is running against Mr Yudhoyono.

It's hard work here, but at least it's a living
Wahyu, construction worker

He is a wealthy and successful businessman, and he has pledged to keep Indonesia's natural resources protected from foreigners.

Mr Kalla has proposed looking after small and medium sized businesses, providing them with the micro-finance facilities they might need to grow their firms.

Finally, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and her running mate, former soldier Prabowo Subianto, say that if they are elected they will focus on the improving the livelihoods of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

In particular they have focussed on farmers, fishermen and small traders.

Mr Subianto has also made rousing speeches denouncing economic policies that encourage foreign investment at the expense of the local population - saying Indonesia should not become "a nation of errand boys".

Decent living

But while nationalistic speeches may make for engaging television, they will not be enough to lift Indonesians who live below the poverty line.

The economy ranks high in lists of people's concerns.

Indonesia's poverty rate is amongst the highest in Asia.

The official figure stands at just more than 14%, but independent analysts say it is much more than that.

Millions of Indonesians have to struggle on a daily basis to make a living, and with no jobs in their villages, they come to big cities such as Jakarta to find work, eking out a basic income.

Take 19-year-old Wahyu.

He is a construction worker in Jakarta. He left his home in Semarang in Central Java two months ago and now builds houses for the city's rich and powerful, fixing gleaming handles on expensive teak doors, sometimes working through the night.

In a busy month, he can make up to $50, but that is still not enough to find him a place to live.

Usually he sleeps on the streets, but if he is lucky, and his employers do not notice, he sleeps in the unfurnished homes that he is building.

"It's hard work here, but at least it's a living," he says.

"I was a burden on my family at home. I couldn't earn anything, so I was of no help to them. At least here, I can stand on my own two feet.

"I have money to [help me] eat on a daily basis - that's enough for me. I just want to be able to earn a decent living."

Top priority

For most Indonesians, it is basic needs like this that will be their focus in these elections.

It is only the second time in the country's history that citizens will get a chance to choose their next leader, 11 years after Indonesia became a democracy.

Indonesians are very proud of their newfound freedom, and the international community has lauded the political transformation in the country.

But both are agreed that significant economic challenges remain.

Whoever wins the top job on Wednesday, tackling poverty and unemployment will be a top priority.

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