Indonesian parties bicker as anti-fuel price hike rallies spread

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Jakarta (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - With protesters violently clashing with riot police at rallies in several parts of the country yesterday, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has been accused of fomenting unrest over the planned fuel-price hike by Democratic Party members.

"Rallies against the fuel-price hike are acceptable as long as the initiatives come from the protesters themselves. What I don't understand is why the PDI-P lawmakers don't use their voices to oppose the plan at the House instead of encouraging the rallies," the Democratic Party's House faction leader, Djafar Hafsah, said on Tuesday.

His comments came as the rally in Jakarta turned ugly when protesting students tried to force their way into the State Palace, before clashing with police.

Riot police responded by firing tear gas and spraying the crowd with water canons after intercepting protesters in Gambir, Central Jakarta.

Scores of protesters were also injured during a rally in Palu, Central Sulawesi, after a group of students started hurling rocks at police, triggering a clash.

Democratic Party deputy chairman Max Sopacua accused PDI-P politicians of acting childishly in encouraging its members to join the street protests.

He said that PDI-P politicians feared losing the vote on the proposed fuel-price hike.

"Voting is one of the features in a democracy. There must be a winner and loser during the process. Lawmakers work in the House, not on the streets. It's obvious that PDI-P lawmakers are not ready [for the vote]," Max said.

The PDI-P rejected the accusations and defended the rights of its members to speak freely on issues.

"We don't encourage our members to take to the streets, but we can't prohibit our members from joining the rallies to express their personal views on the plan," the leader of the PDI-P's faction at the House, Puan Maharani, said.

The PDI-P is the only party in the House that has stated it would openly oppose the hike. The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) had expressed reservations over the plan.

On Tuesday, the PKS said it would stick to its decision to reject the plan.

"If the government's decision does not meet the people's expectation, [then] we will not abandon the people," PKS chairman Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq said as quoted by Antara news agency.

The House is scheduled to hold a plenary session on Thursday in which lawmakers are expected to decide on two options regarding the government's plan to increase subsidised fuel prices: Putting a ceiling on the amount the government can spend on fuel subsidies but allowing it to increase the price of gasoline, or increasing the amount of the subsidies without any price increase.

The central board of the PDI-P had issued a circular, dated March 26, to all party members to express their rejection of the planned hike.

Responding to the circular, a number of local officials, including Surakarta Deputy Mayor FX Hadi Rudyatmo and Surabaya Deputy Mayor Bambang DH, both members of the PDI-P, joined street protests.

Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi said that his ministry had issued an order banning elected officials from joining the rallies.

Meanwhile, the Jakarta Police said that the turnout of protesters in the capital on Tuesday was not as high as expected.

City police spokesman Sr. Comr. Rikwanto said that only around 3,500 protesters joined the demonstration - far lower than the 8,000 registered by the police to join the rally.

"This was way below our expectations," Rikwanto said.

The Jakarta Police had dispatched 22,000 personnel to handle the protest. In other parts of the city, the rallies were much more peaceful, with many protesters leaving once rain began to fall.

The protesters, comprised mainly of students, workers and supporters of the PDI-P, gathered at the entrance of the House building in Senayan, Central Jakarta, at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle and at Merdeka Square.

Rikwanto said the situation remained under control, although the protest turned violent in Gambir.

One of the protest leaders, PDI-P member Jeppri F. Silalahi, said a larger rally was expected to take place on Thursday.

During a rally in Gorontalo, protesters seized control of a gas station for around 20 minutes, allowing motorcyclists and three-wheeled motorised taxi-drivers to fill their tanks for free.

Protesters also vandalised the gas station and left after being told that it was privately owned.

National Police spokesman Insp. Gen. Saud Usman Nasution said that police had launched an investigation into possible criminal acts that took place during the rally.

"We call on all sides to exercise restraint. We will deal with all criminal acts according to the existing laws," he told The Jakarta Post.

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