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Australia should be worried about a Prabowo presidency

  • 07 July 2014

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