Wed, 15 Jan 2003

House moves to save face over price increases

Kurniawan Hari and Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The House of Representatives (DPR) moved to save face in the price hike controversy on Tuesday, urging President Megawati Soekarnoputri to take into serious consideration the protests against the recent utility and fuel price increases.

Emerging from a more than three-hour meeting involving House leaders, faction chairman and commission members, legislators claimed that the decision to increase electricity and telephone charges, and to remove fuel subsidies was solely the responsibility of the executive.

"The decision on fuel prices is a decision of the government. This comes within the power of the executive," House Speaker Akbar Tandjung said.

During the meeting, several legislators urged the government to scrap the utility price increases, while others simply asked the government to heed to people's wishes. A delay in the utility price increases would mean the revision of the 2003 State Budget.

In a bid to finance the budget, the government announced increases on Jan. 1 in telephone and electricity tariffs, and the removal of fuel subsidies.

The new policy has been strongly opposed by trade unions, students, non-governmental organizations and some legislators, who argue that the increases are too burdensome on the general public.

The House, however, has to take its share of the blame as it agreed to raise telephone and electricity charges and remove fuel subsidies when it endorsed the 2003 National Development Program (Propenas) and the State Budget in 2002. The government would not have introduced the increases had the House not vouchsafed its approval.

By asking the government to take into account the people's aspirations regarding the utility price hikes, the House is basically denying responsibility for its own decision, thus washing its hands of the issue and leaving the government to face the flak alone.

Akbar, also the chairman of Golkar, the second biggest faction in the House, justified the House's call for the annulling of the price increases, saying that it (the House) was only involved in approving outline programs.

"The House was only involved in drafting the broad policies," said Akbar, who was sentenced to three years in jail for his role in the misappropriation of Rp 40 billion from the National Logistics Agency (Bulog). He is still at liberty pending appeal.

House leaders, faction chairmen, and the relevant commissions are scheduled to hold a consultation meeting with the three coordinating ministers of Megawati's Cabinet on Wednesday evening to discuss the price hikes.

Coordinating Minister for the Economy Dorodjatun Kuntjoro- Jakti, according to an expert advisor, was ready to answer the House's questions, while Coordinating Minister for Social Welfare Jusuf Kalla has canceled a trip to Poso, Central Sulawesi, so as to attend the consultation meeting. Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is expected to arrive from Aceh on Wednesday afternoon.

The consultation meeting, according to Akbar, is aimed at finding the best solution to the controversy.

Meanwhile, Megawati said on Tuesday that she had decided to meet with People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) leaders instead of a meeting face-to-face with MPR Speaker Amien Rais as he had requested.