EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Indonesia's elections and Australia's future
, March 1, 2014
Since the election of the Abbott government last September, it has reoriented Australia’s foreign policy away from China towards Indonesia.
While the immediate challenge of Middle Eastern asylum-seekers using Indonesia as a transit point was an important factor, the economic and strategic importance of Indonesia, a democracy of 250 million to our near north-west, clearly warranted this initiative.
In April, elections will be held for the national parliament, and later this year, for the presidency. The incumbent president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, having served two five-year terms, is not eligible for re-election.
President Yudhoyono has built and maintained close relations with Australia over many years, and helped the Abbott government navigate through the difficulties of implementing a tough border-protection policy, so the outcome of the election has particular importance for Australia.
There are strong anti-Australian forces in Indonesia, evident in the bombings of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, and Australian tourists in Bali, by Islamist extremists.
Additionally, there are those who resent Australia’s role in the liberation of East Timor following the popular vote for independence in 1999, and the fact that foreign support for the Free Papua Movement (OPM) is based in Australia.
Others are upset by the role played by the Australian government and media in exposing animal cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs which led to the cancellation of Australian beef exports to Indonesia, with adverse consequences for many thousands of Indonesians who were dependent on Australian cattle for both jobs and protein.
In recent months, the Abbott government has had to deal with three revelations: a) that the previous Labor government had bugged the private telephones of President Yudhoyono’s wife and several of his close colleagues; b) allegations that Australia’s border protection policy breached Indonesian sovereignty; and c) the accidental incursion of Australian naval vessels into Indonesian waters.
Despite these issues, relations with the Indonesian government have remained surprisingly friendly and co-operative, partly because the current government in Jakarta accepts that Mr Abbott genuinely wants to build a new and co-operative partnership with Indonesia, going beyond the temporary issues which have threatened to derail it.
Whether the relationship will be the same in a year’s time could well depend on who is elected Indonesia’s next president.
There are politicians in Indonesia who see political advantage in playing the anti-Australia card.
At the time of writing, there is no outstanding candidate, but one could certainly emerge.
Among the front-runners are the popular governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, who leads most of the opinion polls but has not declared himself a candidate; Aburizal Bakrie, who heads the Golkar Party, once headed by President Suharto; Prabowo Subianto, now a businessman but formerly commander of the Army Strategic Reserve Command; and General Wiranto, former presidential candidate and, earlier, commander of the Indonesian armed forces.
Mr Widodo is a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president (2001-4) and daughter of the founder of modern Indonesia, President Sukarno.
Widodo has declined to nominate, saying that his present job demands all his attention, but his popularity and reputation for running a clean and efficient administration may force his hand.
President Sukarno’s policy of religious tolerance is central to the policy of PDI-P, and, when his daughter Megawati was president, she worked closely with the Howard government in Australia.
Under the reign of President Sukarno, which lasted from the end of World War II to the mid-1960s, Indonesia was more-or-less officially a “guided democracy”. It continued, in a different way, under President Suharto.
After the downfall of President Suharto in 1998, a new constitution was written which created the modern multi-party democracy which exists in Indonesia today. But there is no doubt that President Yudhoyono, as retiring president, will try to ensure that the next president continues his policies.
As President Yudhoyono’s party does not have a likely candidate, it is possible that the retiring president could throw his weight behind Mr Widodo, effectively guaranteeing his success.
Despite the efforts of both the Indonesian and Australian governments, it would be easy for Australian politicians or media or NGOs to attack Indonesia in a way which foments anti-Australian sentiment, and feeds into the Indonesian elections.
In the months ahead, it will be vital that Australia cement the present close relationship, and do nothing which would cause needless divisions. Australia’s long-term security, as well as its economic ties, depend upon it.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.