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Australia should be worried about a Prabowo presidency


Candidates Prabowo and Jokowi before debate

Australia was the only country mentioned by name during the recent television debate on foreign policy between Indonesia’s two presidential aspirants.

Both Jokowi and Prabowo said that, though Australia does not seem to trust Indonesia, they would continue President SBY’s good neighbour policy. Prabowo later repeated this assurance to the media and diplomats. His message is that Australia and the international community have nothing to worry about from a Prabowo presidency. 

The prospects are very different. Australia and other countries have a lot to worry about if Prabowo is elected. A Prabowo win will damage Indonesia’s much improved international reputation as a constructive good global citizen and compromise its ability to capitalise on the good will President SBY and his Foreign Minister Marty Natagelewa have generated.

Following the debate on foreign policy, the Jakarta Globe asked its readers to say which candidate they thought would improve relations between Australia and Indonesia. Over 80% said Jokowi. One has to agree. It is easy to see the clean, straightforward Jokowi being feted not just in Canberra like SBY before him but also by the Australian community. On the other hand, Prabowo, if he ever came to Australia, would predictably spark adverse media comment, strong protest and walkouts by MPs. The relationship that so many at all levels on both sides of the Arafura sea have worked hard to build would be further set back. PM Abbott’s call for ‘more Jakarta less Geneva’ would become his worst dream. 

Governments, however, are famously agile in situations like this. Though Prabowo’s former father-in-law Suharto was never elected freely or fairly over 30 years and only managed one visit to Australia in all that time, Canberra embraced him. It will be easier if Prabowo is elected, providing, as seems very likely, the election is credible. Timor-Leste, which knows Prabowo even better than most Indonesians, will also accept the result and can be expected to attend his possible inauguration on 20 October. Asked by John Pilger at the Ubud Writers Festival in 2012 how he would react if Prabowo became president of Indonesia, Jose Ramos-Horta also gave the politically correct answer. The Nobel Laureate, no longer president at the time, avoided any further comment. 

The problem for Prabowo, Indonesia and Australia, however, will not be at the government-to-government level but the people-to-people level, an important element in foreign policy that Jokowi acknowledged during the debate but is often disregarded. A recent survey of Australian public opinion on Indonesia concluded the temperature of the relationship was lukewarm.

There are a number of reasons for this. Some, as Prabowo and Jokowi suggested, lie within the Australian psyche. But what neither candidate acknowledged is that Indonesia’s history of state and non-state violence over several generations has also deeply affected Australian perceptions. A Prabowo presidency would confirm that view. Prabowo will not be Suharto re-incarnated but there are strong signs that under him sectarian Islamic and nationalist elements will be emboldened and tensions with the new post-Suharto generation will manifest with consequences that will further entrench negative attitudes towards Indonesia in Australia.

It also has to be acknowledged that Prabowo has not been proven guilty of the crimes he is accused of. But neither a credible election process nor the presumption of innocence will shift the deeply entrenched public perception that he has at least command responsibility for human rights violations over many years. This view is widely held in Australia and in Timor-Leste where, during a recent visit, I found Timorese following the Indonesian elections with as much interest (and alarm) as the World Cup in Brazil. Many in both societies also believe that Prabowo has only been free to run for the presidency due to grave failures of the international and Indonesian justice systems. Only due process, as the US Ambassador to Indonesia has correctly said in recent days, will resolve the issue and clear the air either way.

It is puzzling to watch Western nations sidelined and reduced to helpless silence by the very system of democracy and freedoms they espouse so strongly. But, if elected, Prabowo can be expected to leave Australia to his foreign and other ministers and look to the Middle East and Asia where he has strong personal connections. This might be the best of a bad situation, but many will weep far into the night because it could have been so much better for Indonesia, and for Australia.

Pat WalshPat Walsh is currently visiting Jakarta. He co-founded Inside Indonesia magazine.

Topic tags: Pat Walsh, Indonesia, Jakowi, Prabowo, politics, election



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Existing comments

Prabowo definitely looks a rather ambiguous character to say the least. Human rights record; son-in-law of Suharto and with contacts in the autocracies of the Middle East. Hum...I wish my Indonesian friends well and hope Jokowi is elected.

Edward Fido | 04 July 2014  

Thank you Pat, an excellent article. What you say is true: “It also has to be acknowledged that Prabowo has not been proven guilty of the crimes he is accused of.” The public perception that “he has at least command responsibility for human rights violations over many years” is understandable, seeing that there has been no investigation to determine accountability for what he or anyone else did in East Timor, let alone in Indonesia itself, or in West Papua. Thanks to all who worked tirelessly on the CAVR Report, the most comprehensive and dispassionate report on Timor-Leste’s history between 1974 and 1999 is found at http://www.cavr-timorleste.org where the actions of Kopassus and Kostrad personnel are presented with cold clarity. For example: in East Timor there were over 100,000 civilian conflict-related deaths between 1975 and 1999, most of which occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s. Prabowo Subianto had four tours of duty in East Timor: 1976, 1978, 1982-84 and 1989 with either Kopassus, Indonesia’s Special Forces Command, or Kostrad, responsible for operations at the strategic level. Between 1995 and 1998 he held high positions of authority in Kopassus.

Susan Connelly | 06 July 2014  

Prabowo's connections with the Middle East are also a concern, given the increasing financial aid for madrassas and masjids coming from that region which is, in turn, influencing the increase in hardline, extremist attitudes in some areas. I think everyone I know of is praying for a Jokowi win, and that includes the moderate Indonesians I work with. But this is East Java - the rest of Java is a different kettle of fish altogether.

ErikH | 07 July 2014  

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