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Indonesia President Joko Widodo puts economy at heart of re-election pitch

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Joko Widodo has put the economy at the centre of his pitch to voters, pointing to job creation and boosting purchasing power as key to alleviating poverty for scores of Indonesians.

[JAKARTA] Joko Widodo has put the economy at the centre of his pitch to voters, pointing to job creation and boosting purchasing power as key to alleviating poverty for scores of Indonesians.

The president, known as Jokowi, in a speech on Sunday underscored progress made in infrastructure during his first term as he seeks to build momentum ahead of April 17 elections. He also outlined key policy objectives should he win, focusing on a positive theme of taking Indonesia forward.

"I am optimistic that hard work will transform the lives of the Indonesian people," Jokowi said in Bogor, near the capital Jakarta. "We will continue to reduce poverty through the creation of employment, economy, stronger purchasing power, comprehensive social security," he said.

While polls show Jokowi holding a commanding lead of about 20 points over his presidential rival, the former general Prabowo Subianto, the gap has narrowed.

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Mr Subianto, more commonly known as Prabowo, has campaigned aggressively and some suggest he could spring a "Mahathir-like" upset and follow Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in winning an unlikely victory.

The opposition has sharpened its attack on Jokowi's economic performance in recent weeks, seizing on a ballooning trade deficit and surging public debt.

Jokowi put development of the vast Indonesian archipelago at the heart of his first term, with hundreds of billions of dollars since spent on an ambitious infrastructure programme.

On Sunday, he called for the country to work together to "build an advanced Indonesia" while adding "our work is not finished".

He also called for unity, a common message in his first term which has been marked by demonstrations in the capital led by hardline Muslim groups, a string of terror attacks and devastating natural disasters.

"We need to unite now to face the threat of division and setbacks," he said.

Appealing to the tens of millions lower-paid Indonesians, Jokowi flagged the expansion of a scheme of free food cards as a key policy. He also highlighted the so-called village fund programme that helps local governments finance development projects, promising to boost funding to 400 trillion rupiah (S$38.5 billion) over the next five years.

Jokowi has made inroads into addressing poverty, with the number of so-called "poor people" falling by about 2 million to 25.7 million since he took office, according to official figures as of September last year.

While the economy has struggled to fire under Jokowi, the nation's jobless rate has fallen to near a 20-year low at 5.3 per cent. He's also managed to keep a lid on cost of living pressures as the election approaches with inflation easing in January to 2.8 per cent, its lowest level since August 2016.

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