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Indonesian President Retains Popularity After Turbulent First Year

Indonesia's first directly elected president remains popular and has kept the country relatively stable during a turbulent first year in office that included last December's tsunami, soaring world oil prices, an outbreak of the bird flu, and another terrorist attack on Bali.

Retired army general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, became Indonesia's first directly elected president after promising to revive the country's flagging economy, deal with rampant corruption and bring stability to the sprawling archipelago of 220 million people.

But just two months after he took office, the December 26 earthquake hit, precipitating a tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean countries. More than 160,000 of those victims were in Indonesia's northern province of Aceh.

Showing a hands-on style of governing that has made him popular, Mr. Yudhoyono was on the ground in Aceh inspecting the devastation shortly after it occurred.

A presidential spokesman, Dino Djalal, says Mr. Yudhoyono's humble beginnings have contributed to his populist instincts.

"He did not belong to a wealthy family," he said. "He always talks about this. He came from a poor family. And his response when he deals with [a] crisis was to deal with it with a populist instinct which relates to his background. His brand of populism, I think, is quite new in Indonesian politics."

Mr. Yudhoyono has also earned praise for helping reach a peace treaty between his government and separatist rebels in Aceh, which led in August to the end of a decades-long insurgency.

And he managed to gain reluctant public agreement for a doubling of subsidized fuel prices, a move that in the 1990s led to the ouster of long-time dictator President Suharto.

But one reputable polling organization reported that Mr. Yudhoyono's approval rating dropped after the price hike. A poll by the Indonesian Institute Survey shows his popularity fell below 60 percent for the first time since taking office.

A member of the opposition Democratic Party of Struggle, Emir Muis, says the government's economic initiatives have not helped the majority of the people.

"The standard of living of the people is getting worse, because there is no economic activity in the grass roots," he said. "I can see that sometimes the idea of the government is okay, but they cannot bring it down to the grass roots."

The government is struggling with a polio outbreak, and another of bird flu that has killed three people. Health experts worry the bird flu virus, which has killed 60 people in of Southeast Asia since 2003, could cause a world-wide outbreak.

Mr. Yudhoyono has also had to deal with a second terrorist attack on the holiday island of Bali on October 1, which claimed 20 lives.

The al-Qaida linked regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for that attack, along with a string of other bombings including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.

In the wake of the latest Bali bombing, Mr. Yudhoyono vowed to strengthen existing anti-terrorism laws.